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Sunitha Krishnan: Rape survivor to saviour

Gang-raped by eight men when 15, Indian activist fights back by helping trafficked women find shelter.

Last Modified: 29 Sep 2013 15:49
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Krishnan founded Prajwala that assists trafficked women and girls in finding shelter [Prajwala India]

Hyderabad, India - "Half of you will not even accept a rape victim as a domestic help! How do I talk about any rehabilitation?"

There is anger in her words - for the judiciary that she believes is failing most expectations, for the law which is sans justice, for the media that refuses to draw a line, and for the society for being so indifferent yet so intrusive.

The anger is understandable, as none knows better than Sunitha Krishnan what it is to be subjected to a vicious rape in India, where victims face stigma, isolation and social ostracism, apart from the trauma.

Gang-raped by eight men when she was 15, Krishnan has had to deal with all that and more. Though violated, she refused to be broken and she gave birth to an instituion that assists trafficked women and girls in finding shelter.

Measuring no more than four feet and six inches (140cm), Krishnan today is perhaps one of the tallest figures of hope in contemporary India.

She co-founded Prajwala (eternal flame) in 1996 with Brother Jose Vetticatil, a Catholic missionary who died in 2005. The journey began by converting a brothel in India’s southern city of Hyderabad into a school for the children of sex workers.

Since then, she has braved threats and physical assaults - one particular attack left her with an irreparably damaged ear - but an undaunted Krishnan has managed to rescue some 8,000 girls. Those rescued are rehabilitated through vocational training, jobs and marriage.

On the streets

Krishnan was born in Bangalore, about 570km from her current Hyderabad office.

Her parents, who belong to the southern state of Kerala, supported her in her decision to pursue social studies and support social causes even as a student.

Little did they know that an incident as grave as a rape would change her life forever.

Walking down the lane of the college that nurtured Krishnan, one is tempted to know if the young today recognise her.

“Let us write about men who commit such heinous crimes. Let us be curious to know who the rapist is and what his background is instead (of finding out about the victim)”

Sunitha Krishnan, Indian activist,

"Sunitha Krishnan? Never heard of her.....some actor?" said a young girl with a quizzical expression on her face before crossing over to the other side.

This is the distance that any activist will probably have to cover to be able to make any difference.

She co-produced a film along with her husband Rajesh, Touchdriver—Ente (mine) based on sex slavery. According to various estimates, India has about 3 million sex workers, most of whom are children.

The film was a commercial flop. "But it earned critical acclaim. Why do we have to watch and write reviews of movies that show women in bad light? Why do we create heroes out of men who stalk women on screen?”," she told Al Jazeera.

Her critics maintain that while she is doing a great service, she leaves no opportunity to earn the extra mileage.

'Where was everyone all this while?'

A local court in the Indian capital city of New Delhi found four men guilty of the rape and murder of a medical student in December 2012.

The incident had created an uproar in the form of violent protests, baton charge on protesters, candle light protests and debates across the country.

"Isn’t this a sham? Last December while the entire nation was protesting for one particular case, I was trying to bring back to life a four-year-old girl who was raped and abused. Why is no one interested in such cases?" the 41-year-old Krishnan demands an answer.

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How does one answer such questions when in 2011, only 17 percent of the reported rape incidents could be proven with a conviction rate of roughly about 25 percent.

According to the National Crimes Records Bureau (NCRB), India, 244,270 crimes against women were reported to the police last year compared with 228,650 in 2011.

According to her, forced prostitution, sex slavery, marital rapes and sexual abuse have always been a part of the society. "Only the visibility has increased."

The 'thus created scenario' is catering to the commercial rating points of many, she laments.

But is she at peace? Talking about her own incident that took place about 26 years ago, Krishnan once famously said "I do not remember the rape part of it as much as I remember the anger part of it.....I derive power from that anger."

'Stigmatise rapists and their families'

"In this patriarchal society, women are stereotyped. We are used as objects to satisfy men. There has been a need of one class (men) to be more powerful over women. This is where the problem begins," Krishnan says.

"Let us write about men who commit such heinous crimes. Let us be curious to know who the rapist is and what his background is, instead (of finding out about the victim)," emphasises Krishnan over a phone call.

"My time is primarily for those who need my help" she adds. Everything else is as much an intervention and botheration for her as much as she is to those patronising sexual crimes against women.

India’s western state of Rajasthan is witness to a ritual "Akha Teej", considered to be the most auspicious day for marriages.

Allegedly, on this day, child marriages are solemnised to protect the chastity of a girl upon the attainment of puberty.

Inside Story: India - The Price of Change

"How can we celebrate sex among children?" remarks Krishnan who blames the media for not performing its duty of being the fourth estate. "Why do media sensationalise a grave issue like rape? Resort to a solution-based approach," she suggests.

She has many questions, "Why can we not ban pornography? It is merely for the sadist pleasure of a few men. The debate of legalising prostitution should not consume the time of a civilised society."

Krishnan has had the courage to not only fight for her rights, but also force the society to accept her.

In the process, she probably comes across as a stubborn and a "not-an-easy-to-please" personality to many.

At various forums, Krishnan has not only identified rape survivors and HIV-Positive patients but also revealed their current profession.

Questions have been raised over her methods, which many say subject the survivors to further social stigma.

But Krishnan is not too bothered about the criticism. "I am not here to please everyone," she insists, firmly focused on her mission to save trafficked women. 

This feature is a part of our ongoing special India coverage. To read more stories click here

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Al Jazeera
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