Sunitha Krishnan

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 2002
This description of Sunitha Krishnan's work was prepared when Sunitha Krishnan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002.

Introduction

Sunitha Krishnan is making it possible for India's government and citizen organizations to manage jointly a range of protective and rehabilitative services for children who have been trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation.

The New Idea

Sunitha has a blueprint for citizen-state collaboration in dealing with the widespread trafficking of children, a problem that is largely hidden. Although laws, activists, and organizations are already devoted to this issue, the overall approach has been too piecemeal and reactive to make much of a dent in the systemic problems that permit trafficking to thrive. Sunitha, who knows the dangers of this work as well as anyone, sees a solution in a system of joint management and mutual accountability between state authorities and the civil sector.
Sunitha recognizes the strengths and limitations of both the citzen and state sectors. The state alone has the money and authority to liberate, house, and protect children on a larger scale. But money and authority are not enough. In fact, when these resources are misused they compound misery rather than alleviate it. The citizen sector has the drive, insight, and creativity needed to help the state put its money and authority to the right use. But in the area of trafficking and child protection, civil society lacks the structure and coordination, in addition to the money and mandate that would enable it to deal with this complex problem. It is not that organizations do not take on trafficking, as there are many that do and succeed nobly. But the lack of political support limits the ultimate systemic impact.
An important object of Sunitha's reform is the existing system of "transit homes" run by the state. Transit homes are supposed to function as safe houses and rehabilitation centers, but in reality they are often dysfunctional way stations from which children emerge in worse condition than when they entered. By reorganizing so that citizen organizations can manage and monitor transit homes together within the state, Sunitha lifts the veil of secrecy that often permits abuse under the neglectful eye of the state working alone. She further extends the role of the transit home to include improved counseling and family reintegration. Joint management allows citizen organizations a voice and some oversight in the running of the homes, but it does not burden them with the challenge of fundraising and bureaucracy that would be required if they were to compete by establishing their own homes. While on the local level joint management puts new, perhaps unwelcome, scrutiny on police, transit home staff, and caseworkers, it also fosters better state regulation by placing all local efforts under a comprehensive state-level rescue and rehabilitation policy. Sunitha's strategy is to move from several successful state policies to an encompassing national mandate.

The Problem

Widespread trafficking of children for sex is a grim reality in India. It is a problem that hides behind underground networks, criminal gangs, corrupt officials, and a culture of impunity. These barriers obstruct society's view of the scale and intricacies of trafficking. It becomes difficult to determine the impact trafficking has on children and families. The barriers block the kinds of coordinated, consistent programs needed to combat the problem. One study of four major cities–Bombay, Calcutta, Hyderabad, and Delhi–found about two million prostitutes, 40 percent of whom were under 18. About a quarter were under 16. More comprehensive numerical data are hard to find because only girls in known brothels were counted. Girls working as bartenders or waitresses who double as prostitutes and girls trafficked for pornography and sex tourism would expand both the overall number and the percentage of prostitutes who are children.
Once a young girl is under the control of a brothel, pimp, or agent, she undergoes a rough introduction or "breaking in," to her new profession. She is gang-raped, hit, given drugs and alcohol, and locked up. Compounding this abuse is constant exposure to sexually transmitted diseases, the end of her education (if it ever began), and the start of a life of a social outcast. The psychological repercussions are so deep as to be unfathomable.
Virtually all of these children have been "trafficked" in some way. Whether they are sold by their parents to pay a debt, tricked by relatives bearing false promises of employment, kidnapped from their villages, or lured off the streets, all are too young to consent legally to sexual intercourse, let alone consent to providing sex for money. Child prostitution is illegal, of course, yet the persistence of trafficking is not solely a problem of poor law enforcement. The 1992 Indian National Plan of Action deals with children in prostitution, but like most other government documents, it does not recognize child trafficking per se as an issue for action. Trafficking is, however, the mechanism that supplies children to brothels, pedophiles, and pornography rings. Prosecuting individual acts of prostitution, which are hard enough to prove, leaves intact the systemic problem of trafficking.
One symptom of this legal shortsightedness is the concentration of energy on "raid-and-rescue" of children from brothels and agents–an important act of intercession, but not a durable solution. Under national and international pressure, the government is involved in sporadic actions, and rescued children are dumped in transit homes that are not equipped for the responsibilities they face. In the worst homes, sexual abuse continues, and children may eventually be trafficked once again, sent back into the sex trade. The better homes may just let the children survive in the wake of their trauma and hand them over to their families if they can be found. In most cases, however, retrafficking is common, and no attempts are made for reunion. A lack of resources and planning devoted to other aspects of rehabilitation has meant that temporary shelter, counseling, and family reunion have not been developed. The government usually defends its homes by saying that it does the best it can on a limited budget.
The absence of a national policy on rescue and rehabilitation is resulting in all kinds of ad hoc and disjointed programs by state governments. The present scene is the water-tight compartmentalization of police, the department of women's and children's development, the education department, the social welfare department, and the judiciary. All operate virtually independently of the others, leaving the fate of abused children back in the hands of those who really take the greatest interest in their future–the traffickers.
While the impact of a solitary raid is small, it suggests that cooperation between state authorities and citizen groups can work, does work, and should be pursued. Yet the police, judiciary, juvenile homes, and citizens have no clearly defined, agreed on, understood roles. Sunitha explains that there is no policy at the government level to ensure the state will address the issue. The government did not acknowledge the existence of child prostitution until recently. Sunitha further notes that the proposed State Rescue-Rehabilitation Policy works as a comprehensive framework to address the rescue, rehabilitation, and reintegration process of child victims of sexual exploitation through transit homes, comanaged by citizen sector organizations.

The Strategy

Sunitha's plan to integrate comanagement of transit houses throughout India has three steps. First, Sunitha is beginning her work in Andhra Pradesh. Second, by creating and lobbying for a Comprehensive Rescue and Rehabilitation Policy, she forces states and the national government to recognize the value of collaboration and commit to it. And third, she is creating demand among citizen sector organizations and sympathetic government workers so that they can invoke the policy and use it in their work.
Sunitha is currently one of the members of the State Coordination committee for comanagement. Through her organization Prajwala, Sunitha is jointly managing the juvenile home for girls with effective counseling, education, life skills training, and reintegration back to families. This venture is the first of its kind in India. The model is being replicated in Goa, Madhya Pradesh, and Nepal.
Sunitha conducted a study on intrastate and interstate trafficking in Andhra Pradesh that served as a powerful tool to convince the state government to issue a draft policy on rescue and rehabilitation. From her base in Hyderabad, Sunitha has developed a network for a wider campaign to promote this policy and its implementation. One of the key elements in the policy document is putting citizen groups on an equal footing–realizing the "co" in comanagement. Sunitha is training trauma counselors at the transit homes to function at district level for effective reintegration. In accordance with the state policy, she is now involved in developing linkages with the state and district coordination committees that are the key players in tackling both the demand and supply side of trafficking.
Given the government's increased attention to the issue in the light of the draft policy, more children are being successfully rescued and prepared for reintegration with their families and society. As an example, children from Andhra Pradesh who are rescued, say, from Delhi, Mumbai, or Calcutta are directly referred to Prajwala, which has a comprehensive rehabilitation plan for such girls.
About 15 organizations in the state of Andhra Pradesh alone are part of the network to develop both citizen groups and mass organizations for prevention, education, rescue, rehabilitation, and follow-up. The village groups called grama panchayaths are also enlisted as watchdogs to prevent and report on local trafficking. Sunitha is in constant touch with groups from Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Delhi that are now taking cues from Sunitha's strategies to bring in a state rescue policy. The state of Maharashtra is seeking advice from the state of Andhra Pradesh on how to adopt a similar policy.
With these networks empowered to take up more comprehensive work, Sunitha is demonstrating the full range of activities that properly fall under the rehabilitation umbrella. To help girls who want to give up the profession, Sunitha has successfully brought in entrepreneurial skills training by involving other organizations and trades, like welding, driving, carpentry, and construction. Many of the older girls rescued from various parts of India are being trained by Amul, a leading Dairy Development Cooperative, to manage their pizza corners. These lessons are an integral part of the state rescue and rehabilitation policy.
Sunitha claims that there is no model for this citizen sector work. "This is an example to the governments in India that we need to undo how we have collectively failed to protect our children," Sunitha says. "A Rescue and Rehabilitation Policy gives way for concrete action leaving behind ad hoc activism."

The Person

Sunitha has been attracted to working with communities since her school days. Sunitha 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. Hailing from Kerala, Sunitha studied in Central Government Schools in Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi, and the Northeastern parts of India.
Sunitha was one of the student leaders who initiated Sadbhavana (Goodwill), a student association, to take up community work with the Dalit community outside of Bangalore. She was 19 years old at the time. Returning alone from a meeting one day with the Dalit community, Sunitha was brutally attacked by higher-caste youth who opposed her presence. The aftermath was tragic. Unable to come to terms with this situation, one of Sunitha's classmates, who was to have escorted her home, committed suicide. Understandably, this had a terrible effect on Sunitha. The whole community, including her near and dear ones, blamed Sunitha, rejected her, and branded her a troublemaker. As a result, the shattered Sunitha decided to work with the most oppressed, stigmatized, and exploited class of society.
After obtaining a degree in environmental sciences, she shifted her studies to social work. While most of the students were taking noncontroversial and traditional subjects for their fieldwork and their Ph.D., Sunitha decided to work with prostitutes, a taboo subject. Her research findings and conclusions initially supported legalizing prostitution, a position she reconsidered once she started working with prostitutes in Hyderabad. With personal experience in many raids, Sunitha has realized that without a meaningful state policy, no amount of social work and activism at the micro level is enough to be helpful.