Meet The Inspiring Woman Fighting For India’s Children And Sex Workers

The fight for basic human rights has been an unending one for many. While we take our freedom for granted, there are people battling every day to earn their freedom and bread, alike. One of the sections of society that has been worst affected by this are sex workers.

Running in circles trying to find a way out, the women involved in this industry had given up hope, until Sunitha Krishnan took on the challenge to change things. A name that has been prominent in social welfare, she has so far rescued more than 17,000 women from sexual violence, assault and the trafficking business.

Sunitha Krishnan – The Life Story

Born in Bangalore to Raju and Nalini Krishnan, in a Palakkad Malayali family, Sunitha Krishnan travelled a lot when she was young. Her family was always moving because of the nature of her father’s work. He was employed with the Department of Survey which makes maps for the entire country.

At eight, she started giving dance lessons to children who were mentally challenged, and from there began the revolution she would later go on to bring in the form of Prajwala. In the next four years, her passion took flight, and by the age of twelve, she started running schools for underprivileged children.

Her progress and efforts were slowly making her a name worthy of appreciation, when, at 15, tragedy struck. While working on a neo-literacy campaign for the Dalit community, eight men raped her, and beat her brutally, leaving her partially deaf in one ear. The reason for subjecting Krishnan to this torture was her interference in the supposed ‘man’s world’.

The incident however, did not stop her from achieving what she had always dreamt of. Instead, the trauma strengthened her resolve and served as the starting point of her journey.

Prajwala NGO – An Eternal Flame

Sunitha Krishnan, social activist and Co-founder, Prajwala. Photo by A Prabhakar Rao/The India Today Group/Getty Images.

Started in 1996, Prajwala is an NGO that has been tirelessly working to end sex-trafficking. Co-founded by Sunitha Krishnan, the NGO, in the last 22 years, has been a ray of hope for sex workers both inside and outside the country.

When I started, I was left nauseous and shocked by the sight of 15-year-old victims. Today, I am not surprised even when it is a 5-year-old victim,” said Krishnan in an interview to The Logical Indian. A force to be reckoned with, she has become the voice for the thousands she is nurturing and providing a better life to.

Breaking barriers and helping women reclaim a position in the mainstream society, her path has been plagued by problems aplenty. Attacked more than 14 times, people, primarily dalals, have tried to suppress her voice. But still, she persists.

Built on five principles – Prevention, Protection, Rescue, Rehabilitation, and Reintegration — Prajwala provides survivours of trafficking with medical, psychological, and legal support. A support system that primarily runs on money from the awards Krishnan gets (or what her husband earns) has so far educated more than 8,000 children. Gender relations, and awareness for the same, is another aspect Prajwala has been involved in.

An exemplary feat that Krishnan achieved with Prajwala was the Public Interest Litigation (56/2004) filed in 2004. It led to the formation of comprehensive anti-trafficking guidelines for the entire nation, as ruled by the Supreme Court of India in 2015.

A keen observer and storyteller, she is also known for films that depict the realities of human trafficking, rehabilitation after rescue, the issue of rape, survival stories, and more. The filmmaker has been putting her talent to shed light on what lies hidden in small, dingy dungeons.

A Positive Attitude, A Positive Future

We need diverse partners to come together and conspire together to achieve goals. If on the ground we are doing a lot of rescue, it is because of proactive policing; if we are securing more convictions, the credit also goes to the judiciary and the prosecution; if there are fewer and fewer victims and more reintegration, it is also because the Women and Child Welfare Ministry. Prajwala is a facilitating body that ensures that all these stakeholders can achieve common goals through efficient means,” mentioned Krishnan.

The ability to thank people who have helped the social worker achieve her goals makes her stand out. Recalling the efforts of others, she has, in the last 22 years, created a community that not only cares about, but wants to be proactive in, bringing change.

Social reintegration, as Krishnan calls it, can only be achieved if society is involved, and her efforts are doing just that. Along with the government and citizens’ groups, she has brought to life rehabilitation services and conjured up a space connecting the two worlds. She has been honoured with numerous accolades and awards, including the fourth highest civilian honor, the Padma Shree, in 2016.

If there is one thing that has kept her going, it is Sunitha Krishnan’s determination to bring home justice to women who have given up thinking about it. Prajwala has been making a deep enough impact and the change is clearly visible. However, this is just the beginning.

A version of this article was first published here. Featured Image source: Getty Images.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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