Sunitha should know. She was a social activist in her teens, working for the upliftment of the Dalit community, when she was gang-raped by eight men.
"The rape itself was not so much of an issue for me," she says. "For some reason I was never too traumatized by that. But what happened afterwards is what made me think. The way my family treated me, the way the world treated me, the way people around me treated me. We as a civil society victimize victims - stigmatize victims of rape and sexual slavery." Case of child abuse shows up ineffective laws
"I was angry. Knowing that thousands and millions of children and young people are being sexually violated every day. And that there's this huge silence about it, it angers me. This huge normalization of that angers me." she says. "I was angry, and then I did something about it."
So in 1996, after receiving a doctorate in social work, she co-founded Prajwala, or "eternal flame," with Brother Jose Vetticatil, (who passed away in 2005).
Since then, she has rescued some 3,500 girls from brothels and pimps, risking her own life and limbs. She has been threatened, pushed around and beaten (She has difficulty hearing from one ear owing to one such assault). One of her close aides was murdered. The brothel owners and traffickers have put a price on her head. As she admits: "In another two or three years I'll be gone."
She has tried to give these youngsters she rescues a new lease of life through education, rehabilitation, training, and most importantly, compassion.
Like the three and five years olds whose pictures Sunitha brought to the TED conference, most of them eventually succumb to sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS. And life is not easy for those who survive, either.
As Sunitha explains, whenever my girls go somewhere seeking a job, and admit they are from Prajwala, doors are shut in their faces.
"It's nice to talk about human trafficking in an AC hall. But it isn't nice when a child who has been rescued wants a place in your community," she says, pointing out that a friend of hers refused to accept a girl from her shelter as a domestic help, because she feared that she might have AIDS.
And to add insult to injury, the landlord of the little shelter she runs in Hyderabad for rescued children with HIV has served her notice, ostensibly because he wants to build a multiplex instead. The real reason: the neighbourhood is uncomfortable with the presence of such children there. Special: Child Abuse
"Even though I am willing to pay twice the market rates, I am unable to get a place," says Sunitha. "My biggest problem," she says, "is not the mafia, it's civil society."
According to Wikipedia, "Human trafficking is the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world, with the total annual revenue for trafficking in persons estimated to be between USD$5 billion and $9 billion. The Council of Europe states, "People trafficking has reached epidemic proportions over the past decade, with a global annual market of about $42.5 billion. "
And if you thought this was something that happened only to the less privileged sections of society, Sunitha points out that one of the recent victims was an IAS officer's teenage daughter, lured over the Internet by someone who promised to turn her into a movie-star. What that someone didn't tell her was that it was a real life horror-movie.
When Sunitha finished speaking, there was a minute of stunned silence before the entire audience erupted in a standing ovation.
Mukul Deora, the young musician who was up next, admitted that he was so shaken by Sunitha's tale that he needed a few extra minutes to get his act together.
Now for the good news: Before the day ended, Sunitha had raised some $100,000 for her cause. And perhaps for a new shelter.
Before the day ended, Google had pledged to hire and train 10 of her students and children.
The bad news? All that is just a drop (a very precious drop, no doubt) of good in an ocean of slime.
Human trafficking for sexual exploitation is a huge criminal industry. And like all industries, there is a demand and supply chain. Sunitha and many others like her try to deal with the supply side of it, by attempting to stem it.
But as long as there is a demand, there will always be a supply.
Excuse me while I sharpen my axe. To contact Prajwala, click here. To support or just thank Sunitha, mail her at email@example.comAlso read: Hey Ram: Let's give away Kashmir | More articles by Ramananda Sengupta