An Indian Activist Faces Down Sex Traffickers

But Ms. Krishnan has made enemies, typically furious traffickers who have seen their profits dry up as girls are plucked off the streets by the police and placed in Prajwala’s shelters. Millions of women and children work as sex slaves in India.

Ms. Krishnan said brushes with violence were part of her “regular existence.” Besides sporadic attacks on the shelters, Ms. Krishnan dodged someone who tried to throw acid on her and witnessed the murder of a staff member by a group of pimps. She said she had been assaulted 17 times.

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Women learning carpentry skills at Prajwala.

Credit
Sara Hylton for The New York Times

She is just 4 feet 6 inches tall, and her body bears reminders of trauma. She has a bad back and has lost most of her hearing in one ear. But these incidents have only hardened Ms. Krishnan’s resolve.

When a girl is brought to a shelter, she said, the damage is bone-deep. The “profile of the person I am getting,” Ms. Krishnan said, is someone who “hates me, abuses me, spits on my face, doesn’t tell me her real name, doesn’t tell me her real address, is so hostile and aggressive toward me, and is happy to escape from my clutches.”

Of the 20,000 women and children that have been rescued, Ms. Krishnan said Prajwala had been able to keep tabs on 86 percent of them, with many slowly regaining their ability to trust others. The remaining number are often trafficked again.

“We’re not 100 percent successful, but we’re not 100 percent a failure either,” she said. “We have demonstrated to the world that it is possible to change.”

Born in 1972 to a lower middle-class family in Bangalore, Ms. Krishnan said she stood out from a young age. There was her pain tolerance, she said, and her “extraordinary ability to bring people together.” Ms. Krishnan was also cunning, helping her to outmaneuver the traffickers she confronts today, she said.

By her teens, Ms. Krishnan had become a “hard-core social worker.” But her interest in working with sex-trafficked women did not develop until she was 15, when Ms. Krishnan was sexually assaulted by eight men while working on a literacy campaign in a village.

It was this episode, and the anger she felt toward people who tried to write her off as a victim, that propelled Ms. Krishnan to start Prajwala.

“I don’t deny that I was a victim,” she said. “I don’t deny that I also took a lot of space and time to recover from that. But my healing was self-determined, and that is why I call myself a survivor.”

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Donated clothes and textiles are available to women who leave Prajwala and hope to transition back into society.

Credit
Sara Hylton for The New York Times

In the afternoon, Ms. Krishnan climbed into a truck and sped off to the city’s high court, where she was meeting with a judge to discuss legislation to criminalize the buying of sex in the state of Andhra Pradesh, which includes Hyderabad.

She reminisced about the past, breaking conversation to curtly steer her driver through impossibly thick traffic and to remind a reporter that the area was the perfect tinderbox for communal riots.

This thought led Ms. Krishnan to recall one of her blunders. In 2012, a group of Muslims accused Ms. Krishnan of defaming women in the community by identifying them as prostitutes to secure foreign funding.

In response, Ms. Krishnan asked the women to sign declarations acknowledging that they were prostitutes and that, for this reason, their children were enrolled in Ms. Krishnan’s schools. Shortly after, a mob stormed one of Prajwala’s centers and beat some of the women.

“People came with swords and chains and all kinds of weapons to cut us into multiple pieces and throw us into the Musi River,” she said, referring to a tributary that cuts through Hyderabad.

Now Ms. Krishnan is especially conscious of protecting women’s identities, rarely granting interviews or allowing access to the shelters.

As the truck inched forward, Ms. Krishnan lamented that her story was too often reduced to the sexual assault she experienced. Still, she felt it was necessary to remind people of the importance of the work.

“If I, a small nobody with no background, nothing, just a small little 4 feet and 6 inches, can do what I’m doing,” she said, “then more people can do what has to be done.”

At an entrance to the high court, Ms. Krishnan threw open her door, held up a hand to stop traffic and disappeared into the crowd.

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