Every single day, for more than six months, a loose network of Indians watched scenes of women being raped by gangs of men. The videos were of low quality: grainy, shaky, shot by an excited hand trying to hold a cellphone steady. Forwarded and shared over and over again until they appeared on the evening news, the images answered a question that had been hanging in the air since 2012, when a brutal rape in New Delhi made global headlines: What does unimaginable horror look like?
Sunitha Krishnan, activist, rape survivor, and a petit woman of gargantuan strength, knows that brand of horror well. “Ten seconds into the video, I was overcome. I had to stop as I needed to throw up,” she told news channels the night she released edited versions of the clips that had been discovered and sent to her by an acquaintance. The existence of such evidence should not have come as a surprise. In India, rapists emboldened by a culture of victim-blame frequently threaten their victims into silence by photographing or recording the crimes.
It is only recently that this narrative has begun to change, a shift that Krishnan describes as “mild but extraordinary.” In 2013, a woman raped by four men and a juvenile was warned not to tell anyone about the crime, unless she wanted humiliating photographs of herself plastered all over social media. The woman, a journalist on assignment, left the scene, called her editor and went straight to the police station to lodge a report.
But even those who do not choose to be silenced often still choose anonymity—reporting sexual assault can come at a great cost in terms of a victim’s personal safety and reputation. Of the nine rape videos that Krishnan received, several date back to years ago. One, from 2006, is the recording of a teenager assaulted by a group of older men in a moving car. Krishnan does not think any of the men in the videos are first time offenders.
“I don’t believe in vendetta, but I think it is time to use their own weapon on them. Technology can help rape survivors to tell their truth too,” she said in an interview with Women in the World.
When Krishnan edited the Whatsapp rape videos in a way that blurred out the faces and bodies of victims, she produced a montage that literally forced the viewer’s gaze to the violator. In one chilling moment, a girl’s voice is heard pleading: “Please let me go, I will die if you do this…”
“That’s great,” the man behind her smiles into the camera.
Uploading this material online was a controversial move: the visuals were extremely disturbing, and several viewers were outraged that Krishnan had not thought to seek the victims’ consent before making the footage public. Soon after Krishnan appeared on a national news channel with the videos, urging viewers to help identify the rapists, the windows of her car were shattered. Tweeting an image of broken glass, she wrote:
“In 30 mins after I announced on NDTV #ShameTheRapistCampaign, my vehicle vandalized. Happy I am on right track.”
Rape and retribution have been closely entwined in Krishnan’s own life. At 15, she was sexually assaulted by eight men as retaliation for her work teaching Dalits (formerly described as “untouchable”) to read and write, a serious infraction in the eyes of the caste-obsessed. Unable to identify her assailants, Krishnan found no justice in the legal system. Worse, she was shunned by schoolmates, neighbors, and eventually her own family.
“This hypocrisy is the worst,” she admitted, when asked what had been the hardest part of her life. “Decent society won’t employ or even share a street with women that are raped. But it loves the men that rape.”
Krishnan has resolutely refused to let trauma destroy her. At 24, she founded Prajwala, an organization for the rescue and rehabilitation of victims of sex trafficking, in her native Hyderabad. Nineteen years later, the NGO has become the largest anti-trafficking shelter in the world, with 300 employees, 17 schools and medical care units for its HIV-positive residents. Krishnan’s team has provided more than 12,000 victims with counseling, medical treatment and jobs. Women rehabilitated by the program have found employment as masons, printers, tailors, managers, and carpenters. Krishnan still works at Prajwala as a full time volunteer.
The work itself is punishing: covert rescue operations from brothels; working with the police to outwit pimps and middle men; breaking toxic cycles of drug dependency. Krishnan has seen a colleague murdered before her eyes and faced at least 14 angry mobs. She has lost an eardrum, and one of her arms is permanently damaged.
At 43, she is battle scarred but not battle weary. She firmly believes that some of her most creative responses to problems have emerged from the most dire situations she has faced.
It isn’t just the trafficking-mafia that Krishnan has taken on. Soon after the 2012 rape in New Delhi, state governments began trying to outdo each other, allocating ever-larger funds for women’s safety. Kerala’s Chief Minister was quick to woo Krishnan: she was tasked with implementing the “Nirbhaya Policy,” advising the government on the establishment of crisis centers modeled on Prajwala.
It was the fulfillment of a life-long dream for Krishnan. State support for women’s crisis centers could make all the difference in providing employment for victims of abuse and trafficking. Krishnan was determined to create India’s first victim-witness assistance center, a sister-organization to the crisis center, which could guide a survivor through her legal and personal battles until the trial was completed.
“It was a do or die situation for me,” she said.
But three years later, Krishnan was defeated by governmental apathy and red tape. She had been treated like royalty by Kerala’s administration, with her every suggestion being converted into a policy named after her. What the bureaucrats couldn’t understand, however, was that a lifetime of volunteer work had trained Krishnan to expect results on the ground. Tendering a public resignation to the Chief Minister, Krishnan later wrote on her blog:
“We at one end, struggle with resource crunch, at another fight the sex mafia, but the biggest fight is against society and the State for its apathy and rejection. After rescuing 12,000 girls from prostitution and attempting to rehabilitate and reintegrate them, I am still wondering…will I ever make an impact?”
And, after years of fighting the mafia, the state, and garden-variety misogyny, Krishnan sometimes struggles to stay positive. She describes depression as something that she experiences “sometimes more, sometimes less.”
Recently, at a conference in Hyderabad, she arrived at the venue, a five star hotel, to find a girl from Prajwala working the front desk. As Krishnan walked up to her, smiling, the girl slipped away. Later that evening, she called Krishnan:
“Ma’am, please don’t greet me in public. I don’t want everybody to know that I was in a victim rehabilitation center,” she said.
Frequently, in legal battles with sex traffickers posing as victims’ family members, defense lawyers will ask Krishnan if she is running a sex racket herself. Or if she forces the girls she rescues to have lesbian sex with her. There is no form of verbal abuse that Krishnan has not faced in rescue operations or on the Internet. But such confrontations in a court of law can still shake her faith.
“It’s hard sometimes. It can make you question everything,” she said, falling quiet for a moment. “But it takes a minute in my shelter to give me energy for one year. If you look into the eyes of a child who has been sold, raped and beaten, and you still find love, how can you stay angry with the world?”
In the past year, Prajwala and Krishnan have grown stronger. In November, she was invited to Johannesburg and honored with the Nelson Mandela Award. This March, the Central Bureau of Investigation made its first arrest on the basis of the videos Krishnan circulated. There is still much work to be done. In a petition to the Home Ministry, Krishnan has made six demands, among them, that the CBI must take the initiative in investigating such offences and set up a National Task Force, that India, like Europe, the U.K. and the U.S., must create a public register for sex offenders, and that service providers like Whatsapp and YouTube must agree to be more vigilant—suspicious pornographic videos must be sent to law enforcement agencies rather than to “Adult Content” folders.
With the Supreme Court taking a special interest in Krishnan’s #ShametheRapist campaign, more arrests are sure to follow. For now, Krishnan is back in the Kerala government’s Nirbhaya scheme, this time as honorary director.
Saman Malik contributed reporting to this piece.