The last time Sunitha Krishnan, the famed campaigner against sexual violence, saw 21-year-old sex trafficking victim Varfolomeyeva Zulfiya alive, the young woman was knitting a colorful scarf. A few days later, Zulifya used that scarf to hang herself in the shelter Kirshnan runs.
Suicide is rare in Prajwala, the rescue center Kirshnan co-founded for victims of atrocities like gang rape and sex trafficking in southern India. Zulifya, a native of Uzbekistan, had grown increasingly desperate in her five months there, in part because she desperately needed money to send home to her mother and she had no way to leave the center to find work. Because many of the victims of trafficking are also criminally accused of prostitution, Prajwala has a legal obligation to keep them in custody while they recover and rehabilitate.
Kirshnan had a special connection with Zulifya, whom she says shared occasional smiles, but very few words. “She was looking for a job in India when she was forced into prostitution,” Krishnan told Women in the World. “Her mother was unwell, so she desperately wanted money for medical treatment for her, and the traffickers took advantage of that. She was quiet but had an angel-like smile on her face.”
Zulifya was taken from the street and brought to Krishnan’s shelter during a sting operation to clamp down on sex traffickers. The center, which houses around 600 victims of gang rape and sex trafficking, has become a defacto place where victims are taken despite minimal contributions and constant threats against them by traffickers who don’t like to see their money sources taken off the streets. Prajwala doesn’t have an Uzbekistan speaker or translator — it’s rare for Uzbeks to make it to the shelter — and Zulifya gradually withdrew from nearly everyone. “She was extremely fond of me,” Krishnan said. “A day before her death, she wanted to see me. My people told her I was on an international trip, and I said I’d be back in just a day or two.”
Zulifya didn’t wait for Krishnan, who was addressing the ninth annual Women in the World summit in New York when Kulifya took her own life. Krishnan’s flight back to southern India was the longest of her life. On one hand, she knew that addressing the summit would bring attention to the rampant sex crimes in India, and maybe even bring desperately needed funding to the shelter. But she can’t help wonder if Zulifya might still be alive if she had only stayed at home.
As part of Prajwala’s rehabilitation program, young victims are not released from the center unless they are handed over to a vetted family member approved through the local courts. In the case of Zulifya, no family member ever came to even try to take her home. What made things even more difficult for Krishnan was that once she returned to India she soon realized that even in death, no one valued the young victim.
The traffickers had taken Zulifya’s passport, so she had no official identity document when she died. Krishnan said the Uzbekistan government was reluctant to recognize her as one of their own, which meant that her body stayed in storage in the Kalwakurthi coroner’s office for days while Krishnan worked tirelessly to try to get Zulifya’s body repatriated back home. “The embassy refused,” Krishnan said. “They said there is no proof who she is.”
Because of the language barrier at the shelter, no one had ever heard much of Zulifya’s life story, which made it all the more difficult to trace her roots. Finally, Krishnan got the Uzbekistan authorities to reluctantly agree to allow her body to be repatriated. It was important to Krishnan that the young woman not be abandoned in death like she had been in life.
Krishnan knows the horror of sexual violence and exploitation first hand. She was gang raped by eight men when she was just 15 years old. “The rape, per se, didn’t haunt me as such as much as the shame, the guilt, the exclusion, the stigma that I was subjected to,” she told those in attendance at the Women in the World summit. “I was made to feel like a criminal for a crime that I have never committed. I think the unfairness of that, the anger in me, is what is my driving force from then to now. And very shockingly and surprisingly, even after 26 years, that anger isn’t gone.”
It’s the anger that motivates Krishnan to keep the shelter going, but she is frustrated by the Indian government’s reluctance to adopt policies of prevention for both trafficking and violent rapes, which remain common. Three days before Krishman spoke in New York, an 8-year-old Muslim girl was gang raped and murdered in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. The brutal crime prompted calls for the death sentence for any convicted rapists, though Krishnan points to the fact that the culture of tolerance means that many rapists are never tried for their crimes. “The government will do something to pacify the public, not a systemic response,” she says. “They need to create measures to prevention, create an entire network.”
Krishnan and the others in the shelter are mourning the loss of Zulifya. But her biggest worry is that one day she will not be able to afford to keep her shelter running. She has space to help even more young victims, but she has no way to provide for them.
“I have the space but I have no money. If I am financially secure, that is one problem less for me,” she says. “There are so many things I cannot control: I cannot avoid the fact that all the girls come from traumatic situations. I can’t stop the self harm. I can’t do away with the fact that most of the ladies are suffering from Stockholm syndrome with their captors. These are things I cannot wish away. That’s part of the situation,” she said. “But sometimes, the way people make me feel is that I created the problem by trying to solve it, as if only exposing it makes it real. But we will sustain in spite of all of this. We are not going to give up.”
Below, watch Krishnan’s appearance at the Women in the World summit earlier this month.
Barbie Latza Nadeau is the author of Roadmap To Hell: Sex, Drugs & Guns on the Mafia Coast and the Rome Bureau Chief The Daily Beast. Follow her on Twitter here.