Metta Convention 2014 : Living Saints in Plain Clothes

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by Paduma Ang

During the Metta Convention held at Sri Lanka in June 2014, I had the opportunity to meet with many inspiring activists from India, America and Sri Lanka. There were two figures who I met that particularly struck a chord and left a deep impression.

“Every adversity is an opportunity.”

How does one survive being gang raped and beaten 17 times by 8 men at the tender age of 15? How does one live through 2 years of social isolation and ostracisation?

Besides her tenacity, conviction and passion, what really left me in awe was Dr Sunita’s compassion. When she was spoke about her experience with her perpetrators, there was no sense of malice of hatred.

Who is she?

Dr Sunitha Krishnan is an Indian social activist and chief functionary and co-founder of Prajwala or “eternal flame”, an institution that assists trafficked women and girls in finding shelter. A mental health professional, she has done extensive research and is essentially a field practitioner. She is making it possible for India’s government and citizens organizations to manage jointly a range of protective and rehabilitative services for children who have been trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation.

Did you know? The sex trafficking industry is the second most organised crime in the world right after drug trafficking. It is a 10 Billion dollar industry in the world today.

Dr Sunita speaking at the Metta Convention Inauguration Ceremory

Dr Sunita speaking at the Metta Convention Inauguration Ceremory

Fearlessness

Dr. Krishnan works closely with the government to define anti-trafficking policy, and her recommendations for rehabilitating sex victims have been passed into state legislation. “I’m like the wonderful poison that the government cannot swallow, and also can’t spit out.” she said, referring to how she felt the government viewed her with regards to her work.

Besides a list of awards and accolades, she has also been recognized as 150 Fearless Women in the world by NEWSWEEK. After her speech at the convention, she was asked how she found the courage to stand up when she faced with oppression from bigger groups, such as the Mafia.

“Facing them (the Mafia in India) is straight forward. I face them head on and show them I am not afraid, and don’t back down. I have seen my teammates die in front of me…. I fight back. But they are not my biggest fear. Society – The attitude of society have towards these victims – that is the bigger mafia.”

“Not just care, but dare.”

The young girls Dr Sunitha Krishnan rescue everyday in India are forced to sleep with 40 – 50 men a day. The moment these girls (as young as 2 – 3 years old and sold to brothels, their life is about paying off their debt with their bodies. And if they protest and refuse, they get tortured and beaten.

“Dare to speak up when you think it’s not right. No change comes from others. In our silence, we are also criminals endorsing the isolation, stigma of the victims.” Dr Sunitha said.

Dr Sunitha Krishnn is a rare breed of individual. In my eyes, she is a bodhisattva, in her own ways.

If you would wish to support or find out more about Dr Sunita and her work, visit www.prajwalaindia.com/home.html

 

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Just one simple gesture

My first encounter with Dr A.T Ariyaratne was at Changi Airport in June 2013 when I went to receive him. He was our keynote speaker for the first Metta Convention in Singapore.

Dr A.T. Ariyaratne is the Founder and the present President of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement of Sri Lanka, the largest people’s organization in Sri Lanka. It began in one village and has now grown to more than 15,000 villages.

After reading about all his achievements and accolades and being new to hosting and receiving a guest of this caliber, I was pretty anxious of our meeting at the departure hall. I felt totally unprepared.

When I saw him from afar, in his white attire and plump frame, Dr Ari melted all hints of my nervousness away with one sincere gesture.

Before the words “Welcome to Singapore!” could leave my lips, he took my hands with both his hands, clasped it in his wrinkled broad palms, placed it in front of his face, looked at him and said, “Thank you for coming” with a deep, broad smile.

While I stood there like a block; dumbfounded and processing what had exactly happened, this grandfatherly figure then drew me in a warm embrace and placed his cheek next to mine, and did the same for the other side. (I later realized this was how he greeted and said goodbye to his family members and the rest of the people he met and knew.)

“I am like the dust on their feet.”

Dr Ari is the recipient of many national and international awards. He received the  Sri Lankabhimanya Award from the President of Sri Lanka 2007 and many International awards such as the Ramon Magsaysay Award (Philippines) 1969, King Baudouin Award for International Development (Belgium) 1982, Niwano Peace Price (Japan) 1992 and Mahatma Gandhi Peace Prize (India) 1996 for his contribution to promoting Gandhian values outside India.

I had the fortune to spend some time with Dr Ari and took the opportunity to ask him a few questions. One of the questions I asked was pertaining to humility. I asked him how he remained grounded, despite all the international and national recognition given to him over the years.

“When I was receiving an award once, in Sri Lanka, I remember there were many important and high-ranking government officials present. I was given an award for my work at Sarvodaya. When I went up to receive my speech, I looked at the officials sitting at the front row. I looked at their feet. Then looked at what was beneath their feet.

I thought to myself, “I am like the dust on their feet.””

I fell silent. A mixture of feelings overcame me at that point of time after hearing this. Some tinge of shame and guilt, coupled with a sense of deep respect. This was the attitude that probably kept him going throughout the years, which I believe is also what made him so special and approachable to everyone.

Dr Ari is 83 this year. Despite his ripe age, he is still travelling the world, giving speeches and inspiring so many with his work and movement.

If I were to live long till the ripe old age of 83, what would I be doing?

I leave you with one of my favorite quote from the late Chief Reverend Venerable Dr K. Sri Dhammananda:

“Death is no cause for sorrow, but it would be sorrow if one dies without having done something for oneself and for the world.”

In our own ways, let us do a little good for the world.

Welcoming Dr Ariyaratne at Changi Airport in June 2013.  The last time Dr Ari came to Singapore was in the 1970s.

Welcoming Dr Ariyaratne at Changi Airport in June 2013. The last time Dr Ari came to Singapore was in the 1970s.

 

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