Sunitha Krishnan

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Sunitha Krishnan
Born 1972 (age 43–44)
Bangalore, India
Alma mater St. Joseph's College, Bangalore, School of Social Work, Roshni Nilaya, Mangalore University
Occupation Founder of Prajwala, Hyderabad
Known for Social activist, co-founder of Prajwala, an NGO that works for the rehabilitation of sex workers and their children.

Sunitha Krishnan (born 1972) is an Indian social activist and chief functionary and co-founder of Prajwala, a non-governmental organization that rescues, rehabilitates and reintegrates sex-trafficked victims into society.[1]

Ms. Krishnan works in the areas of anti-human trafficking, psychiatric rehabilitation and social policy. She has worked relentlessly to bring about a change in the attitude of India’s government for victim-friendly policies as well as awareness regarding sex trafficking, through political, legal and media advocacy.[2] Her organization, Prajwala, helps pay her living and also shelters rescued women and children.She is making it possible for India's government and citizen’s organizations to manage jointly a range of protective and rehabilitative services for women and children who have been trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation.[3] She was awarded India's fourth highest civilian award the Padma Shri in 2016.[4]

Early life[edit]

Krishnan was born in Bangalore, to Palakkad Malayali parents Raju Krishnan and Nalini Krishnan.[5] She saw most of the country early on while traveling from one place to another with her father, who worked with the Department of Survey which makes maps for the entire country.[6]

Krishnan was a precocious child. Her passion for social work became manifested when, at the age of 8 years, she started teaching dance to mentally challenged children.[7] By the age of 12, she was running schools in slums for underprivileged children.[7] At the age of 15, while working on a neo-literacy campaign for the Dalit community, Krishnan was gang raped by eight men.[8] This incident served as the impetus for what she does today.[9]

Krishnan studied in Central Government Schools in Bangalore and Bhutan. After obtaining a bachelor's degree in environmental sciences from St. Joseph’s College in Bangalore, Krishnan completed her MSW (medical & psychiatric) from Roshni Nilaya, Mangalore and later her PhD in social work.[10] To complete the fieldwork requirement for the doctorate, Krishnan took up the subject of the life of sex workers.[11]


In 1996, Krishnan, who had become an ardent activist, was arrested–along with more than a dozen other activists–for protesting against the staging of the Miss World competition in Bangalore, her hometown. As she had a leadership role in organizing the protests, Krishnan was in judicial custody for two months. Krishnan has stated that her parents were never on the same page with her. Krishnan was associated with Brother Varghese Theckanath, a Catholic Religious Brother and social activist, a member of the Montfort Brothers of St. Gabriel, who founded People's Initiative Network (PIN) in Hyderabad to work with slum people. Krishnan had become acquainted with Varghese Theckanath during a conference on Globalisation he had organised in Mumbai.

When Krishnan was released from jail after two months, she found that her parents were not supportive of her choices or lifestyle. In order to make a fresh start, Krishnan decided to move to Hyderabad, to join PIN as the Coordinator for the program for young women. Krishnan soon became involved with the housing problems of slum dwellers. When the homes of people living by the city’s Musi River were slated to be bulldozed for a "beautification" project, she joined the housing rights campaign of PIN, organized protests and stalled the scheme.It was in Hyderabad that she met Brother Jose Vetticatil, who was then Director of Boys’ Town, a Catholic Institution run by the Montfort Brothers of St. Gabriel, that rehabilitated and trained young people at risk by providing them vocational skills that fetched them handsome jobs in India and abroad[5][12] This was in 1995.


In 1996, sex workers living in Mehboob ki Mehandi, a red light area in Hyderabad, were evacuated. As a result, thousands of women, who were caught in the clutches of prostitution, were left homeless. Having found a like-minded person in Brother Jose Vetticatil, a missionary, Krishnan started a transition school at the vacated brothel to prevent the second generation from being trafficked.[13] In its early years, Krishnan had to sell her jewelry and even most of her household utensils to make ends meet at Prajwala.[14]

Today, Prajwala stands upon five pillars: prevention, rescue, rehabilitation, reintegration and advocacy. The organization extends moral, financial, legal and social support to victims and ensures that perpetrators are brought to justice.[15] To date, Prajwala has rescued, rehabilitated, or served over 12,000 survivors of sex trafficking,[16][17] and the scale of their operations makes them the largest anti-trafficking shelter in the world.[18]

The warehouse of energy and optimism that she is, Ms. Krishnan's enthusiasm easily rubs off on those around her as well. As a former co-worker, says, "Working with Sunitha is like a constant learning experience, with her constantly throwing challenges, urging staff to tap their potential. She not only monitors but also mentors her staff in all spheres of work and life. Her undying hope, passion, relentless struggle to reach goals set for herself and for Prajwala (actually synonymous) inspires the team to stay focused on the cause too."[7]

The organization’s "second-generation" prevention program operates in 17 transition centers and has helped prevent thousands of children of prostituted mothers from entering the flesh trade.[19] Prajwala also operates a shelter home for rescued children and adult victims of sex trafficking, many of whom are HIV positive.[20] Krishnan not only leads these interventions, but has also spearheaded an economic rehabilitation program which trains survivors in carpentry, welding, printing, masonry and housekeeping.[21]

Prajwala has over 200 employees, but Krishnan runs the organization as a full-time volunteer—a decision she took very early in her life. She supports herself, with help from her husband, by writing books and giving speeches and seminars on trafficking worldwide.[22] She is married to Mr. Rajesh Touchriver, an Indian filmmaker, art director and scriptwriter, who has made several films in collaboration with Prajwala. One of the films, Anamika, is now a part of the curricula of the National Police Academy,[5] while another Naa Bangaaru Talli won 3 National Awards in 2014.[23]

Social policy[edit]

In 2003, Krishnan drafted recommendations for rehabilitation of victims of sex trafficking in Andhra Pradesh, which were passed by the State Government as a Policy for Rescue & Rehabilitation of Victims of Trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation vide GO MS 1.[24] The states of Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Delhi are now taking cues from Krishnan's strategies to bring in similar rescue policies.

Ms. Krishnan was appointed as advisor for the Government of Kerala's Nirbhaya policy for Women and Children to fight sexual violence and trafficking in 2011. The scheme, which was originally drafted by Krishnan, is coordinated by various government departments like social welfare, SC/ST, police, health, labor and local self-government in collaboration with NGOs.[25] However, she resigned from this advisory position on 4 August 2014, expressing anguish and frustration at the lack of political will to implement the Nirbhaya policy.[26] In March 2015, in a "move of repentance" the government re-inducted Sunitha Krishnan back to its Nirbhaya scheme by giving her more decision-making power through the role of Honorary Director.[27]

In the United States, Ms. Krishnan has met auditoriums full of students in order to raise awareness, warn them against getting involved in the industry and inspire new activism.[28] Not only did she spearhead the first ever Statewide Campaign against Sex Trafficking targeting adolescent girls in collaboration with the State government and various international funding agencies, but she also launched the Men Against Demand campaign with the slogan "Real Men Don’t Buy Sex" which has reached 1.8 billion people worldwide.[29]

She was also appointed as a member of the Andhra Pradesh State Women’s Commission[30] and contributed to India’s new Bill on Rape, which was passed in Parliament in 2013[31] to increase punitive measures for sexual violence and assault.[32]

Legal advocacy[edit]

With personal experience in many raids, Krishnan has realized that without a meaningful state policy, no amount of social work or activism at the micro-level is enough to be helpful. She therefore goes about her task forging partnerships with various police departments, especially Women Protection Cell, the Anti Human Trafficking Unit.[33] Krishnan started the first ever Crises Counseling Centre in Afzalgunj Police Station–a pilot project for Police-NGO collaboration to intercept sex trafficking. She has persuaded the Andhra Pradesh government to work with her in cracking down on this organized crime and helped secure the conviction of more than 150 traffickers.[34]

Krishnan has also conducted sensitization workshops for thousands of senior police officers, judges, prosecutors and Child Welfare Committee members[35] to equip them with the requisite understanding and skills to effectively handle cases of human trafficking and advocate for child-friendly courts.[36] As a result, police personnel ranking from Superintendents to Sub Inspectors have been trained on how to combat the crime[37] and address the psycho-social needs of victims during and after rescue.[38]

Media outreach[edit]

In 2009, Krishnan gave a speech during an official TED India conference about the cause of human trafficking at Infosys Campus, Mysore, which has since inspired over 2.5 million viewers globally.[39]

"She brought the house down in Mysore today. And by that, I mean that she broke hearts and moved people to action. The audience listened painfully to some of the stories of the more than 3,200 girls she has rescued, girls who had endured unimaginable torture and yet, somehow, nevertheless found the will to heal and thrive… Her strong voice and powerful body language ensured that no one could claim to have misunderstood her points."[40]

Her July 2012 appearance on Aamir Khan’s television show Satyamev Jayate was instrumental in not only garnering huge funds but also networking with business owners willing to provide job placements for survivors.[41] She also appeared on test open at Open Heart with RK which reached out to millions of Telugu viewers across the world.[42] In addition, Krishnan sensitized over 3,000 corporate houses through the INK[43] and The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) conferences, which made a deep impact on the attendees.[44]

Film making[edit]

Early in her career, Krishnan forayed into film making as a tool for advocacy. She conceptualized and scripted 14 documentary films on socially relevant issues such as youth and HIV/AIDS, Sheikh marriages, incest, prostitution, sex trafficking, communal riots, among others.[45] Some of the films she has helped develop and co-produce include:

  • Mein Aur Meri Sanchaien (Hindi)[46]
  • Needalu: An Insider’s view into the World’s Largest Criminal Enterprise[47]
  • The Man, His Mission (20 mins, Hindi)
  • Bhagnagar (10 mins, Hindi)[48]
  • On Freedom and Fear (30 mins, Telugu, English)
  • The Sacred Face[49]
  • Me & Us (23 mins, English)
  • Astha – An Ode to Life (25 mins, English)[50]
  • A Chance to Live (25 mins, English)
  • Anamika–The Nameless (28 mins, Telugu, Hindi)
  • Building Bridges[51]
  • Aparajita
  • Naa Bangaru Talli (4 National awards winning movie)

The 2005 documentary Anamika—The Nameless[52] won the AC award under "Best Foreign Award" category, Best Editing from Festival Cine de Granada and Best Documentary Film Award at the HIFF.[53] Prajwala’s shockingly vivid film The Sacred Face also broke the silence about the horrors of incest among high-level officials in Hyderabad.[54]

In January 2013, Ms. Krishnan in collaboration with Suntouch Productions launched a bilingual feature film on sex trafficking titled Ente in Malayalam and Naa Bangaaru Talli in Telugu. Naa Bangaru Talli has won 5 international awards in 2013,[55] including Best Feature Film Award at Trinity International Film Festival, USA and Award of Excellence from IFFCRM, Indonesia.[56] It then won 3 awards at the 61st National Film awards in New Delhi[57] and was screened at the 4th Beijing International Film Festival, 2014.[58]

Research and publications[edit]

In 2002, Ms. Krishnan and Bro Jose Vetticatil conducted an action research and publication of a document entitled The Shattered Innocence on inter-state trafficking from Andhra Pradesh to other states, revealing the reality and magnitude of the crime along with a demographic profile of vulnerable communities.[59] Upon submitting this report to the government, a state-level consultation on the need for a multi-sectoral approach to address the issue emerged.[60]

Other books she has published include:[61]

  • Caregiver’s Manual on Sex Trafficking: A guide to creating a healing space to restore dignity for victims
  • From Despair to Hope: A Handbook for HIV/AIDS Counselors
  • Living Positively: A series of 8 resource guides for barefoot HIV counselors on community-based care & support
  • Handbook for Anti-Trafficking Partners of Andhra Pradesh: A State Resource Directory of Service Providers

Threats and attacks[edit]

Krishnan has been physically assaulted 14 times and she receives regular death threats.[62] She says that a Sumo van once deliberately rammed her auto rickshaw, but she escaped serious injury. She was again fortunate to escape injury when acid was once flung at her. Good fortune saved her a third time when she was the target of a poisoning attempt.[63] Krishnan says that these assaults have only steeled her resolve to carry on her crusade against human trafficking.[64]

In 2012, one self-proclaimed RTI activist led an attack on one of Prajwala’s transition centers in Kalapather. A mob of young Muslims with posters and printouts of Prajwala’s website staged a dharna in front of its school. The media picked up the story, presenting one-sided information, insinuating that Prajwala had been defaming Muslim women in order to access foreign funds. Hundreds of Muslims came to attack the centre with swords, chains and stones. Their leader declared loudly that he would kill Krishnan and "cut her into pieces". He also threatened to close all her other centers.[65]

Awards and honors[edit]

Based on her courageous and tireless work as an anti-trafficking crusader, Prajwala’s founder Ms. Sunitha Krishnan has also received numerous accolades and honors:





  • Tejaswini Award, FICCI, 2010.
  • Kelvinator Woman Power Award, Colors TV, 2010.
  • Gangadhar Humanitarian Award, Kerala, 2010.
  • Vanitha Women of the Year, Manorama Publications, 2009.[83]
  • Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report Heroes from US Department of State, 2009.
  • CNN-IBN Real Hero Award, Reliance Foundation, 2008.[84]
  • Perdita Huston International Award for Human Rights, United Nations of Capital Hill, Washington DC, 2006.
  • World Of Children Health Award, 2006.
  • Citation from Governor of Andhra Pradesh for Contribution to Women’s Empowerment, 2004.
  • Stree Shakti Puraskar, Government of India, 2003.
  • Ashoka Fellowship, 2002.[85]

Malayalam movie director Vineeth Sreenivasan was inspired by her life while developing the story of his latest movie Thira.[86]


What Krishnan pleads for—in fact, demands—is that each of us open our minds and hearts wide enough to embrace victims of atrocity in their full humanity, recognizing each one as part of the world we share—as much as we or our children are.[87] Her message to society is, "break your culture of silence. This tolerance to violence and to sexual slavery has to go. The day we can create a zero tolerance society and break our silence on all forms of sexual violence will be the day we can see social transformation."[7]

  • "Society makes you feel cheap. I chose not to feel like a victim. I am not a victim. I am a survivor. I speak about it with a lot of pride, because I am proud of what I have become today. I have not done a mistake. I don’t want my face to be blurred. I am not to be ashamed for. The guys that have done it should be hiding their faces and they should be blurring their faces."[88]
  • "We do not relate to the victims or empathize with them, which makes us a party to the crime as much as the real perpetrators. The general tendency is to cast aspersions on the victim’s character and doubt his or her claims. Our questions are always directed at them, not at the abusers."[89]
  • "I have this deep-rooted belief that my life is a providence by itself, and God has brought me in this world to do what I'm doing, and God will allow me to stay in this world so long as he believes that my mission is not done, and therefore I do believe that the day God believes that my work is done, I'll be killed or I'll die naturally, or whichever way that is possible."[90]

Ms. Krishnan draws strength from her pain and anger, and channelizes it to the task at hand—which is to use every possible forum to shake society out of its complacency and tolerance of sexual exploitation.[91] When asked what keeps her going, she doesn’t hesitate: "I live for the smiles of the children I have rescued. I live for the hope in their eyes."[92]


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External links[edit]