I don’t remember the faces of the eight men who gang-raped me when I was 15 years old. What I remember is the shame, rejection and ostracization that made me feel like a criminal for a crime I hadn’t committed. But I didn’t act as the victim people wanted me to be. I became a fighter.
At four feet and six inches tall, I don’t look like your typical fighter. But when I was younger I thought I could take on the world alone. I would clean and cremate the dead bodies of those who had been evicted from the red-light district of Hyderabad, I would counsel women in prostitution who had lost everything and taught young children in slums how to dance. I was even jailed for two months for my activism. I was unapologetic in my mission, even as I bore the pain and social exclusion my family went through as a result.
I did, however, realise my mission was unsustainable the day one of my co-workers was murdered right before me. I understood that for my work to make a genuine impact, I needed to ensure this work lived on through others. The mission was bigger than me. I had to learn to work with many kinds of people, some whom I may even dislike. That is when I understood first-hand the power of collaboration and partnership.
I established Prajwala to rescue and rehabilitate victims of sex trafficking and sex crimes and help them reintegrate into society. Through our advocacy work with local governments, we have ensured that these women have compensation, legal citizenship, housing and jobs as they leave the shelter and return to society. Most importantly, we can ensure that they return with dignity. Without these resources, and without a re-found sense of self, victims of sex crimes and victims of commercial sexual exploitation typically end up back on the streets, or even dead.
Creating this community for survivors of sex trafficking and sex crime came from my own understanding of psychological and physical exclusion. The transformative incidents of my life have helped me better understand these struggles. I have received regular death threats, I’ve been physically assaulted 19 times, had acid thrown at me, and been the target of an attempted poisoning. Although these were to dissuade me from my task, they have only acted as a great motivator to continue my mission. For every attack on me, I knew I was on the right track. These were the ‘signs’ of ‘doing it right.’
I am enormously proud that Prajwala has evolved into one of the world’s largest civil society organizations crusading against sex trafficking. But there is so much more that needs to be done. And our true success will be the day when we can “close” Prajwala, the day when there is no need for such an intervention.
Sex slavery is a global market worth nearly $100 billion. The Walk Free Foundation estimates that in 2016, nearly 5 million people were subject to forced sexual exploitation around the world, one million of which were children, many younger than 10 years old. It pains me that there are so few shelters that specialize in helping sex-trafficked victims around the world. There is so much silence around this global racket. To fight the organized crime of sex trafficking, we too must be organized and make the world understand that any form of sex crime against women and children is deplorable, inhuman and should not be tolerated at any cost. We need to build a world that has zero tolerance for any such crimes.