Sex Slaves as Young as 3: It Takes the Mind of a Criminal to Rescue Sex-trafficked Girls in India

Being gang-raped at 15 ultimately led Sunitha Krishnan to rescue girls and women sold into sex slavery in India. It's a dangerous and daunting task – but 'it's impossible to do nothing in the face of that cruelty,' she says

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Women learn carpentry skills at Prajwala, a sex trafficking rescue organization, in Hyderabad, India, Feb. 19, 2018.
Women learn carpentry skills at Prajwala, a sex trafficking rescue organization, in Hyderabad, India, Feb. 19, 2018.Credit: Sara Hylton / The New York Times
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

Talking to: Sunitha Krishnan, social worker, activist, cofounder of the Prajwala organization, visiting Israel as a guest of the Genesis Prize Foundation; lives in Hyderabad, India. When: Thursday, 7 A.M. Where: Hotel lobby, Tel Aviv

What, in practice, are you engaged with?

Prajwala, which means “eternal flame,” is an organization, apparently the largest in India, that fights trafficking in women. We have saved 20,000 teens and girls in prostitution, and we run the biggest shelter for victims of sex trafficking.

The scale of human trafficking in India is known to be among the largest in the world. For obvious reasons, it’s difficult to estimate its true scope, but it’s clear that the data supplied by the government hardly reflect the actual situation.

According to the information in my possession, every 10 minutes a person is sold into the Indian sex industry. Of them, 45 percent are children. Human sex-trafficking is an industry with a turnover of hundreds of billions of dollars a year. It’s important to understand that in underdeveloped areas, the life of a girl isn’t valued much in any case. She is just another mouth to feed. There are all kinds of methods for getting rid of her: She’s strangled in infancy, placed in a bucket of ice so she’ll get pneumonia. For a family like that, the chance to sell their daughter for $8 or $10 is a golden opportunity.

Sunitha Krishnan.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

A girl like that, who could even be 4 or 5 years old, will pass through any number of hands before arriving at the final destination: a brothel. She will be forced to sleep with dozens of men a day. Every day. She will become addicted to alcohol and drugs, because there is no other way to bear such an existence. Do you understand why this is my life mission? It is impossible to do nothing in the face of that cruelty.

India is developing at a dizzying pace, but together with the economic prosperity and the technological progress, the rate of human trafficking is also increasing.

The phenomenon is spreading not only in India – it is a worldwide trend. Technology is actually giving the industry a significant push. If in the past it was easy to assess which populations were vulnerable, and to try to implement preventive measures, nowadays, by means of technology, the criminals and exploiters can reach every home and the transactions take place below the radar.

What do you mean?

What people tend not to understand about trafficking in women is the fact that it is perpetrated by organized crime at the highest levels and on a vast scale. Behind every woman, adolescent or girl in prostitution lies a long chain of people who brought her to that state. These organizations employ huge numbers of people whose role is to locate more and more girls and women. The modus operandi of purchasing girls and teens from poor families still exists, but alongside that, many additional girls enter the circle, including from the more established classes, because today, under the cover of technology and the social networks, the lines have become blurred. Now, along with the people who are physically looking for girls, there are handlers who connect with girls through the social networks, using false profiles. They pretend to be girls themselves, tempt them into escaping from home and then sell them. They persuade them to have their picture taken in revealing poses and send the photographs to porn sites or use them as a means of extorting the girls, who are afraid of what will happen if their families find out.

In your articles, you describe a long, orderly chain, which extends from someone within the community, from the girl’s close milieu, whose role is to locate the victim through someone who knows her personally and who brokers the transaction, all the way to the owners of the brothel, the pimp who’s in charge of her, and of course the clients.

That chain can begin with a salesman in a store where she buys things, or even with a worker in the local temple, who knows, for example, that the family is going hungry or that a particular girl is on bad terms with her parents, or was married off to someone who is now abusing her. It’s someone the girl knows who will finally strike the deal. From there she begins to go from hand to hand and might be sold dozens of times.

Whenever we rescue a girl, we know exactly who pimped for her, because he goes to court and claims custody of the girl, claiming she is his daughter or sister or niece, that she is not working in prostitution but was arrested by mistake. That’s a huge problem for us, because the frightened girl will cooperate with him. She knows that if she resists she will be killed or her family will be harmed, and so she will never say, “Yes, this is the person who sold me,” but always, “That’s correct, this is my uncle.” It’s impossible to expect anything else from a young girl who is being raped by dozens of men a day, who is viciously beaten by her guard, by the pimp, by the clients.

You cite figures that are very hard to digest: 93 percent of the women will never succeed in getting out of this. Of the 7 percent who do succeed, the great majority return to prostitution. That’s a very high rate of recidivism.

Once a girl or teen enters that world, her chance of leaving it is almost nonexistent. They are subjected to intensive brainwashing. Real indoctrination. They are taught to be afraid of the police, of women’s organizations, of people who were previously close to them. They are completely isolated from the world, and they are told that everyone is against them, that if they dare leave they will be thrown into jail for life. They believe this, of course. It’s explained to them that the family and the community will never accept them back – and sadly, that part is true. They know they can’t go home. Again, because the technology is so convenient and available, already on the first day of her arrival she is photographed with a client, and if she only dares to try something the photograph will be used against her; it will be shown to her parents and to the whole village or neighborhood.

It’s full-fledged slavery.

It is the slavery of our time. The level of dependence the girls have on their pimps and managers is incomprehensible. To the girl, they are God. She will do whatever they tell her. Like a puppet. Even the few who manage to extricate themselves, they almost always manage to go back.

If so, how do they perceive you? Who are you, from their perspective?

I am not the savior for them. On the contrary: I am a person who is exploiting them, who wants to remove them from the supposedly safe place. This is a problem that exists only in human sex-trafficking. Children who are sold or abducted into slavery, who work 15 hours a day in a factory, understand that they are victims. These girls don’t. They don’t understand what is being done to them.

One of the reasons for the very high rate of recidivism is that in their minds, in their consciousness, they are controlled by their enslavers. They are convinced that it’s their fault, that it’s their choice. Even if we get to them early, the damage has already been done, and things of course get more complicated when they start to earn money.

In the first months, sometimes in the first years, they work in order to repay an imaginary debt that their employer invents.

When they arrive they are told: You owe us this or that for the trip. For the room. For the food. They work a long time for nothing, and when they begin to be paid it’s already too late to rescue them. For many of them it’s the first time in their life that they’ve seen money.

Do the families know what awaits the girl, or do they really believe that she is going to the big city to be married or because a respectable job awaits her?

They know, but pretend not to know. As I mentioned, in almost every case of trafficking there is someone from the inside, someone from the close or extended family involved. They know.

I suppose the girls tell themselves that the family doesn’t know – otherwise they wouldn’t be able to survive.

Of course. But even more than that: She will tell herself that she is doing it for the sake of the family, that she is sacrificing herself to save them. I just had a terrible case of a girl whom we rescued, who was ill with AIDS, and the disease was advancing with dizzying speed. She simply lay dying in our shelter. She begged us to send her home, because she wanted to die at home. I rushed to court and obtained an order allowing me to do that, but when I called her mother she shouted at me that the girl would ruin her siblings’ chances of marrying and she hung up on me. That girl sent money home for four years. Her family had no problem taking the money, but they didn’t want to see her again.

Words fail me.

I cried, too. I cried when I spoke to the mother and begged her. I told her: Your daughter wants to die at home. One of the hardest things I’ve done, certainly one of the most painful, was to have that girl’s body cremated.

By yourself.

Only I was there.

n this Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012 file photo, Indian women participate in a silent procession to mourn the death of a New Delhi gang rape victim, in Gauhati, India. Credit: AP

How old was she?

She was 16 and was sold when she was 12. I can’t grasp it.

I don’t think it’s possible to grasp it. Did you tell her the truth?

At first I tried to tell her the truth, and then I stopped. She was so proud of what she had done for her family. We saw her fading and fading, but she kept asking: What is happening? Can I make the trip [home] today? In the end I told her gently that her mother was very worried about what people in the village would say when they saw that she was so sick. Even then she tried to understand. She asked if they could come to the shelter to part from her. I called her mother again, and simply begged her. I promised to pay for her ticket and to put her up. She refused.

Please tell me that this is an exceptional story. It’s too much to take. How can you take it?

Cruelty is part of my life. I have seen so much already, and still, human cruelty never ceases to surprise me. That story haunts me, I can’t shake it off. You know, she died about three weeks after we rescued her, but at the time we rescued her she was with a client. She was too sick to stand up, but she was still working.

‘Gang-raped at 15’

Maybe we can talk a little about your personal story, which actually prompted you to become active.

I was gang-raped when I was 15. Of course, I don’t want to talk about what happened there. The truth is that I don’t remember much, and that might be because I prefer not to remember, but I can say that what happened afterward made me the person I am today. I remember how I was treated like a criminal, because of a crime I did not commit. I remember that I, the victim, was made to pay the price for what was done to me. I still burn with anger at that, despite all the years that have passed. That’s what drives me. Whenever I see how society turns its back on these girls, how it perceives them to be criminals, I burn with anger. Every time I see another innocent girl enter that world, another helpless child entering that world, my anger only grows.

In a TED India talk you gave, you showed photographs of 3- and 4-year-old toddlers who were sold into the sex industry. How can that be?

The youngest child I rescued was 3 years old. I think a lot about the mindset of men everywhere in the world – Western men mainly, who go to the East for paid sex with small children who work in brothels. By the way, from the dealers’ point of view it pays more to sell and buy children, because these clients are willing to spend a great deal for them.

It’s so sickening.

This horror exists under the patronage of those who maintain it. People who are ready to pay for sex services from the helpless. What is amazing with the children is that, in contrast to the adults, they are more mentally resilient. Their rehabilitation process is far more rapid and effective. But what we came to understand, the hard way, is that this is temporary. Even if at the age of 5 or 6, the child appears to have recovered and been rehabilitated, within a few years their situation will deteriorate. Apparently the mechanism is that young children don’t fully understand what has happened to them, but when they reach adolescence, they start having flashbacks. They remember all the men who raped them, they understand what it actually was, and then they sink, they break, they become suicidal, they are very violent. A great many of them will go back to the street. So that with children, it’s far more difficult, in the end.

I remember a story of a 7-year-old girl. Her mother was a prostitute, an alcoholic and sick with AIDS. When she started to grow physically weak and couldn’t get clients, she sold her youngest daughter to her pimp in order to pay for her drinking, and he sold her to a brothel. We received that information almost in real time, but nevertheless, by the time we got to the girl, she had already been raped by dozens of men. Another girl, whom we rescued when she was 11, had been abandoned by her father and by her mother, the sole provider, who sold her happily to a stranger. She remembers that on the train she heard the man say on the phone, “I am bringing a fresh body.” In other words, she was a virgin, so her value was higher. There are children who live on the street and are picked up there, and children who run away from home and are found by someone.

There is always someone who is waiting.

Always. Everywhere. People must understand this: There is always someone.

As the founder of the organization, you are in charge of the operational side. I read an interview with you in which you admitted to being a crafty, highly resourceful person yourself, and that these qualities are useful in your work.

I am capable of thinking exactly like a criminal. I can’t explain to you exactly what I do without giving away information that could be harmful to us, but I will say that we, too, make use of a great many manipulations, similar to the manipulations that they themselves use, only in the opposite direction. There’s no way to be saints. When you are fighting crime, you have to know all the strategies and stay one step ahead. We have to think like them, otherwise they will defeat us. Today all our rescue operations are carried out in cooperation with the police. We don’t act on our own. In fact, it’s a standard police operation in every respect: well planned and based on prior information.

How do you collect the information?

We have a vast network of informants, including the girls themselves. Every girl we rescue tells us about other girls who were taken, who are hidden. Sometimes it’s their sister, or a friend they once knew. We also work in cooperation with a movement of men who are fighting prostitution. They help us. They wander around, talk to the guards, to the pimps, to the clients, to the taxi drivers.

Sunitha Krishnan gives a talk.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

So it’s a full-fledged intelligence operation.

Intelligence is critical to the success of the operation. After the information reaches us, we send another team to authenticate it, because many times we are deliberately given false information. People try to set traps for us.

How can you be certain? Do they enter the brothels themselves?

They go to the actual places. Yes. They pretend not to be satisfied with the girls they’re shown; they say they want someone younger, prettier, taller, darker, etc., until they locate the girl that we know about.

And if she’s not there?

They go on playing the game. They make a scene, they say it’s a bad brothel, they get angry, and then they throw money on the table and leave, because once you enter you have to pay. If they don’t pay they could get into real trouble. As soon as we know about a particular girl, and know for certain where she is, we go to the police and plan her rescue.

I saw a documentary that shows the police breaking into a brothel in Delhi. Some of the girls, it turns out, hid, or were hidden, in a closet with a double door. When the police discovered the closet, the girls refused to come out. A policeman crawled in and simply dragged them out. Girls of 12, maybe 14. As a viewer, you expect them to be happy to be rescued, but they looked miserable.

They are not happy. No way. They know that the world has nothing to offer them. That society will reject them. We invest so much effort in rehabilitating them, risk our lives to rescue them, and then society pushes them out with all its might.

That’s the paradox. In a country where the society is traditional and very conservative, the sex industry exists on a vast scale.

What is truly astonishing, by the way, is that even society’s supposedly liberal segments reject these girls. These ostensibly enlightened people invite me to give talks and listen to me and applaud and shed a tear, but they would never employ a girl like that, who has undergone rehabilitation, in their home or their business. Certainly they will not allow her to get close to their children.

What does the process that they undergo after the rescue look like?

First of all, we treat them physically. They are all ill with sexually transmitted diseases. They are all addicted to drugs or alcohol or to some other substance, depending on the brothel they worked in, because when you are raped by dozens of men every day you can’t do it sober. You have to anesthetize yourself. They understand that, and their captors certainly understand it. Many of them suffer from serious damage to the external and internal sexual organs. Some of them suffer brain damage.

Because of the physical blows.

Yes. They are beaten cruelly on the head. All the time. About a third of them are HIV-positive, and in such a weak body, with a barely functioning immune system, the disease bursts out and progresses very rapidly. Only after they receive physical treatment is it possible to start working on the mental damage.

How do you think they explain to themselves what happened to them at the brothel? They’re only girls, after all, and most of them would never have seen a man close-up before. Some of them led a relative protected life, despite the poverty.

When they are inside the brothel they don’t think. They are just there. They are very drugged or very intoxicated. They work seven days a week, from 3 o’clock in the afternoon until 5 A.M. Then, when the shift ends, they are so exhausted and drugged that they simply collapse into sleep until they’re awakened for the next shift. Thinking is a privilege that the world of the brothel does not allow them. A girl who is used to having her body constantly invaded, whose consciousness is constantly being controlled, who is constantly beaten and threatened, disconnects. She no longer thinks about anything.

She’s in a dissociative state.

Yes. The disconnect continues after the rescue, in other ways, and even when she starts slowly to sober up and return to life, it’s still hard for her to understand that it was not her choice. It is still hard for her to imagine a life without drugs and alcohol, because she no longer remembers a reality in which she didn’t need them. The process of building trust in us is a very lengthy one. It’s only after half a year of intensive treatment that she starts to trust us and believe that we want what is best for her and for her wellbeing. Only then does she also start to talk about who hurt her and what happened to her, and her struggle for survival and rehabilitation begins.

We teach her life skills. We give her practical instruction. The aspiration is to get her back into the labor market. Into society. It’s not an easy task. Employers have tremendous difficulty accepting girls like this. In the end, most of our girls succeed in finding a job. I push for education – that is the key, in my view. We also have a few girls who managed to go far, who are studying medicine, law. They truly came a long way.

You speak of the violence to which these girls are subjected, but it hasn’t spared you, either. What you have chosen to do entails huge risks.

I am facing organized crime and I cope with criminals. So of course there is violence – I have been beaten and attacked 17, maybe 18 times. I lost my hearing in one ear, I have permanent physical damage, acid has been thrown at me, people from our staff have been attacked, our offices were broken into and vandalized, we have been evicted from quite a few places because people don’t want to have anything to do with us. To me, that’s a sign that I am moving in the right direction. I understand that if what I am doing were not the real thing, if it was having no effect, I would not be targeted.

A colleague of your was murdered before your eyes.

That is a truly terrible story. He was a pimp who was rehabilitated, left the life of the street and devoted himself to our cause. He was very close to me and obtained a great deal of valuable information for us. In the end, they apparently realized that the information was coming from him. We were on the way to a rescue operation when we were attacked and he was stabbed to death before my eyes.

You are exposed to so much suffering and pain. You made a courageous choice, but the cost is so high.

What helps me get out of bed in the morning is those girls. When I see them smiling, moving about, progressing, and I understand that they actually have no reason to trust the world, no reason to believe that things will be good one day. They were betrayed in every possible way, by everyone they encountered, and yet they are smiling. They trust me. That’s a feeling I can’t explain. It’s tremendous inspiration for me. If a girl like that can forget and forgive, I certainly can’t complain.

Let’s imagine that the whole world could hear you – what would you want to say?

I think the time has come for a deep transformation in male thinking, among men everywhere in the world. I think that the conception of sexual consumerism as something legitimate has to change, and it can change only through education.

You don’t think the sex industry has long since become irreversible?

Everything can change.

You believe that? After everything you’ve seen and experienced?

Yes. What we have here is actually the supply side, the demand side, and in the middle is organized crime. If the demand side decreases, the whole equation will collapse. We need to ask ourselves how to educate our children to understand that paid sex is neither acceptable nor legitimate. That it’s cruelty per se. It’s a matter of a collective human conscience. A collective consciousness. If we all stand together and say, “No more,” it will end. What humanity created, it can also destroy.



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