Thu, 24/10/2019 - 20:15
Interview. We spoke to Sunitha Krishnan, an Indian activist fighting sexual violence and human trafficking for sexual exploitation.
Making the most of her visit to Barcelona as part of the ‘Cities Defending Human Rights’ project, we spoke to Sunitha Krishnan, a global figure in the fight against human trafficking for sexual exploitation. She has spent a week going around Catalonia, taking part in meetings, giving talks to young people and attending to the media in the municipalities from the network which have invited her as one of the 16 human rights defenders for this year’s project. She has also had the chance to meet professionals here whose work is similar to hers.
Sunitha, your dedication to the issue of sexual violence has its origins in your own experience of rape. But had you started to be concerned about the most marginalised groups before that?
Yes, I’ve always felt close to those who have the most difficulties in making a go of things. And yes, at 15 I suffered gang rape and consequently experienced first-hand the ‘collateral’ effects as they hit me: stigmatisation and isolation in the years that followed. My anger over the situation led me to fight against aggressions, but also against victimisation and society’s reaction, which I often say silences, or worse still, isolates these women and children.
“The men that do these horrible things live among us”
Not only do you say that exploiters and aggressors are guilty, but you also call out to all of society.
That’s the way it has to be: rapists, those who buy sex from slaves, those who traffic children are obviously guilty and must be pursued, but from my position, and now with my trajectory, I call for people to react to stop these crimes. The men who do these horrible things live among us, and I’m not just talking about India. How many European men go to countries in the south and buy sex with teenagers, child slaves? We’re talking about a blight which affects the whole world.
You also ask that as a society we accept survivors, which is what you call people you have rescued
We call them survivors as it’s more empowering for them. They have been victims but mustn’t be victims for life. They have to find their place in our society, to be able to live a full and dignified life. And, precisely for them to live, they need society to accept them, contract them, want them by its side and not isolate them. That’s why we work with entities and schools etc.
As a result, it’s more important for us to act as a society than to pay money and forget about it. You say you don’t want charity or philanthropy.
I don’t want people to just clear their consciences. Money is needed to make progress with certain things, but it shouldn’t be a way for people to get rid of their feeling of guilt and think everything is alright now. We need people to really get involved, at a political level, at a personal level, to eradicate human trafficking for sexual exploitation. Not to let a situation pass us by without seeing it and denouncing it. For me that’s the biggest challenge.
One of the most surprising things about the work of Prajwala, the NGO you founded, is that you train women and young people in work traditionally done by men, even jobs that require a certain physical strength
Everything we do at Prajwala, whether with the victim or with the survivor, has to help towards that person’s recovery. If we follow the traditions that put women below men, we’re sending them back to where they want to get out of. Let me explain, some years ago we thought work shouldn’t just be a job, but rather that it had to help boost self-esteem, confidence in people’s strength, and a job traditionally done by men is perfect: it shows society and people themselves that not only can they be on a par with men, but they can also do better. In fact, we’ve got cases of girls who are so good they end up getting approached for certain jobs. We’re not seeking compassion with jobs, as it’s subjective. We’re looking for people to have skills and abilities, which is a standard goal. These women have been subjected by and trampled on by men, by the patriarch, and reaching a higher level than them empowers them. We train them to become carpenters, welders, builders, taxi drivers and other types of profiles and the truth is they end up being really good at these professions.
“When a young child you’ve managed to wrest from their captors sees you and comes running to hug you with a sparkle in their eye, you need nothing else to keep going”
How do you manage when you’re dealing every day with the lives of people who have been maltreated, raped and tortured? How can you believe in humanity?
I’m not saying it’s not tough, but you can’t imagine how intense the other side of the coin is. When a young child, aged 5 or 6, who has been repeatedly raped and who you’ve managed to wrest from their captors, comes running to hug you with a sparkle in their eye, you need nothing else to keep going. And we get a lot of moments like that. Even in other contexts we can also fill up on positive energy: just yesterday, at a school we visited here in Catalonia, one of the children was listening to me and raised his hand at the end to say he couldn’t understand how people could be so cruel and that as a man he would fight against this blight. It touched my emotions.
The trip organised by Cities Defending Human Rights has taken you to 16 human rights defenders all around Catalonia, but it has also enabled you to meet NGOs that are fighting human trafficking like you are. Have you found any common ground in your work?
Of course. Some really good work is being done here and we coincide that the goal is to repair the person and their dignity so that they can get back into society with all their rights. The starting point is different though: many women who are sexually exploited here are foreign nationals and an important part of the work is to help them apply for international protection, while in Hyderabad the girls are mostly Indian. But the three pillars for rehabilitation are very similar: psychological recovery, economic recovery and the recovery of civil rights lost.
Your work is obviously not to the liking of trafficking gangs. They have beaten you and threatened you. How do you live with fear inside you?
I’m not afraid. I know they’ll kill me one day, but until then I’ll fight. I won’t let them get away with it. I won’t stop pursuing them and denouncing them. I won’t stop rescuing women and children.