The auditorium fell dead silent when Dr. Sunitha Krishnan stepped onto the stage at TED India on November 6, 2009. And Tedsters around the world, watching via a live stream webcast, were transfixed – or at least we were in Dubai!
The diminutive, soft-spoken, anti-trafficking crusader, who was gang-raped as a teenager, began her talk with the heart-wrenching stories of three children – Pranitha, Shaheen and Anjali – whom she rescued as part of her work with Prajwala, an organization she co-founded in 1996.
Pranitha’s mother, Dr. Krishnan said, had been an HIV-infected prostitute, who, when she became too ill with AIDS to work, sold her then four-year-old daughter to a broker who prostituted her. Little Pranitha, whose angelic face smiled from a huge screen behind Dr. Krishnan, was raped repeatedly by dozens of men day after day before she was rescued.
The second toddler, Shaheen, was so brutally sexually assaulted after being trafficked that her intestines burst through her abdomen, and had to be surgically re-inserted into her body.
We didn’t hear the third child’s story because the live stream connection failed leaving us frozen: Dr Krishnan in cyberspace, and our small Dubai tweet-up group in despairing silence. (Dr. Krishna’s extraordinarily powerful TED Talk has since become available; see it here.)
As the connection came and went over the next 18 minutes, we heard snippets of Dr. Krishnan’s passionate talk, the full version of which I hope will soon be posted online… But I was so moved by the small bits we heard, that I’ve been unable to stop thinking about Dr. Krishnan since.
Prajwala India Does Amazing Work
Today, I visited the Prajwala India website, and had a short telephone conversation with the awe-inspiring Dr. Krishnan herself. Here’s some of what I learned:
- Prajwala, which was founded in 1996, serves women and children who are victims of trafficking. Its aim is to prevent women and children from entering prostitution, the worst form of sexual slavery.
- The organization works in five main areas: prevention, rescue, rehabilitation, reintegration and advocacy.
- Prevention includes transition and drop-in centers that use education to help break the cycle in which children of prostitutes follow in their mothers’ footsteps. In 1996, the organization began with five children. In 2007, it worked with 5,OOO children in such centers
- Prajwala workers also patrol places such as bus and railway stations where they rescue vulnerable women before they fall prey to traffickers. Over 1,700 girls have been saved from being sex trafficked through this kind of intervention, and a total of 3,200 have been rescued overall.
Rescue, Dr. Krishnan says, can be traumatic for many victims who have been socialized into prostitution – without re-education they don’t realize that they are indeed victims. Rehabilitation, she adds, takes a very long time.
Yesterday, Dr. Krishnan, who confesses to be technologically challenged, wrote the inaugural post on her newly created blog She has started blogging because she believes it will allow her to air views she might not feel comfortable sharing in other forums, such as on a TED stage.
Dr. Krishnan has paid dearly for her passionate desire to protect women and girls from those who would prey on them. She recently leanred that one of her ears, damaged years ago when “goons” beat her up because of her beliefs, requires more surgery.
Partial deafness and the second surgery are some of “the many irreversible prices I have to pay for being an activist fighting sex trafficking,” she says in her first blog entry, which calls for protection for those who fight against the human rights tragedy of trafficking and sexual slavery.
But the price Dr. Krishnan has paid pales in comparison to that exacted from the trafficked children whose stories she shared.
The TED India live stream webcast came back online long enough for us to hear their fate, revealed at the close of Dr. Krishnan’s talk. I wanted to be 100% sure my ears hadn’t deceived me, so I asked her today to confirm what had transpired…
“And Pranitha, Shaheen and Anjali?” I asked, “They’re dead aren’t they?”
“Yes,” she replied quietly. “All three of them died. Of AIDS. Before they turned five…”
Sunitha Krishnan’s Fight Against Sex Slavery (the video of Krishnan’s TED India Talk)
New Scheme To Prevent Trafficking Of Women In India
It’s Sickening: Sex Slavery Alive And Well Around The World
Sex Slavery Is NOT Acceptable, No Matter Where It Occurs
The High Price Of Sex: Trafficked Women Pay With Their Lives
Cambodian Sex Workers In No Win Situation