Dr. Girish Kulkarni: Fighting For The Rights of Sex Workers through Snehalaya
SalamatRaho presents to you the inspiring story of Dr. Girish Kulkarni. Mr. Kulkarni is continuously fighting and raising his voice for the sex workers through Snehalaya. Their mission remains to provide rescue, rights and rehabilitative services to the communities in most need. To offer a safe exit point to women and their children trapped in the crippling cycles of orodtitution, poverty & abuse.
Equality and inequality, a constant war, trying to build a bridge between the two. Who is to be blamed? Fate, destiny, circumstance, the list is long. The ones who are born under privileged usually struggle to come out of that rut. They need support. Support! Where can this support come from? From those who are better off than them and can lend a helping hand. From those who are more qualified and can provide guidance or from those who are more experienced, to pull them out from that dark hole.
This story is about a young boy who allowed himself to react to that nagging feeling that kept bothering him and then he responded and today, he has changed the lives of thousands. Dr Girish Kulkarni. A true silent hero.
Girish Kulkarni: Childhood
Girish Kulkarni grew up in Ahmednagar in a typical middle class family. He was a bright student yet his parents enrolled him in tuition classes in class eight. Both classes were one km apart so he had to take a short cut to reach early to get a good seat. This took him through one of the city’s red-light areas, an area children were generally forbidden to enter. The bold young 13-year-old Girish saw no reason why his parents would ever need to know about his clever route, as his purpose was resolved.
Prostitution Exist In Our Society
Passing through those dingy lanes daily, he regularly saw girls his own age sitting outside brothels selling their bodies as part of the prostitution business. Even at the tender age of eight, he was deeply impacted and kept wondering why he was reaping the benefits of being born fortunate while others lived this life in hell. This site nagged him daily and the full impact of this misery got deepened when he witnessed a naked girl child being beaten and tortured with chilies rubbed on her private parts. Her fault was that she had contracted syphilis and was no longer available to bring in revenue.
The young Girish felt powerless, helpless, handicapped and just could not find a way to save these unfortunate beings. Sleepless nights haunted him throughout his teenage years.
When Girish started college, he connected with a friend who lived in the same environment but was extremely embarrassed about it. During a home visit, Girish found his 15-year-old sister, mother in her 40s and grandmother in 70s, all were employed as female sex workers, sometimes just for a cup of tea.
Again, and again the same thoughts kept piercing his conscience that how could he not be able to do something to help these people. Joined the youth organisations but just reciting slogans would not change the plight of these sex workers on ground.
Impact of Gandhian Philosophy
Inspired by the Gandhian philosophy of serving the most unfortunate in society and recognising the injustice of a community forced into sex work simply because of their social status he thought: “How can I change the lives of at least a few people?”
The Urge To Work Against Prostitution
He started visiting the red-light area often, just to hear their stories and soon realised that all they wanted was that their Children get a better and safer life. One step at a time, Girish would pick up two children and would try to give them a day like normal children live. Take them to a park, buy them snacks, tell them stories or teach them how to ride bicycles. He became popular amongst this community and soon had 80 children under his wings.
He spent time teaching them about our Indian culture, about respecting our mother by touching their feet each day and collecting food from wedding parties to distribute to those who may not have earnt money that day. The women started trusting him as he treated them with dignity and respect, unlike others who saw them just as an object of pleasure. These women were uneducated and not aware of their basic human rights.
When one of them went to complain to the police, she was harassed, robbed and raped instead. Where could they go for help or protection?
Girish encouraged them to raise their voice against this injustice done by the very own protectors of justice. And these sex workers actually, rallied and marched against the police force. The guilty parties were transferred and punished and for the first time the sex workers felt powerful that their voice was heard.
Girish felt that now he had found his calling and doors opened for him to act.
Inception Of Snehalaya
In 1989, he founded Snehalaya. The committee always had few members who were from the sex workers community as they would understand the situation the best. They were made trustees and he coached and guided them in their new roles. They emerged as leaders and women in power who became role models for others who would take over.
This was not enough as many died due to contracting HIV and AIDS, a side effect of their profession. This became rampant and that is when Girish set up a Death with Dignity program.
He used a few roadside huts and a bike attached to a cart which provided palliative care to some of India’s first AIDS casualties. This initiative later became The Caring Friends Hospital and research centre – established in 2013. Specialising in the care of HIV patients offering treatment & dignity to those that others turn away.
But this was not enough. There were many other issues as most newborns were also left in hospital bathrooms or near garbage bins etc and they needed to be rescued also. That is when the adoption centre was started. The adoption Center offered Neo- and post-natal facilities to abandoned infants.
Many women who were rescued needed some income source and a respectable life. No one gave them jobs or dignified solutions to earn a living. And then Snehalaya started the
Organic 25-acre farm for former sex workers & HIV+ beneficiaries ready to make a new self-sufficient life for themselves & their families.
New people joined the teams, volunteers added up and many more ways of providing care and help came up.
Most of the sex workers were those that were kidnapped from villages or who ran away from home and then got trapped into this business. Low or zero education was a major hindrance or cause of their plight. Their children who were born in that environment were stuck in the situation.
Himmatgram Snehadhar offered short & long-term shelter & helpline offering counselling, legal aid, vocational training & education for young girls & women.
Tremendous support is also being given to the LGBT community and their health care.
In India, today 4% of children never start school 98% of girls don’t finish secondary education. They Established a school in 2011 and now the Annual beneficiary reach is about 1,173 children.
Snehalaya English Medium School Balbhavan- a Unique model of social change through education, vocational training, health initiatives & more for those living in seven of Ahmednagar’s slums In India today. So apart from the children of sex workers, they are also open to children from all avenues. This has helped the sex workers children to mingle and live like normal children. Their aim was also to provide rehabilitation and education to children struggling in mainstream school as a result of their economic situation or health.
Not only education but upgrading them to get into mainstream employment options is also on. Computer classes for all levels, from word processing basics & creating email accounts to specialised courses in Photoshop was Established in 2010.
Snehalaya is really proud to be celebrating 32 years of Snehalaya.
They have come a long way since 1989 when founder Girish took two children of sex workers away from the red-light area for a few hours each day. Since then they have worked with over 200,000 vulnerable women and children empowering them through 20 education, health, rehabilitation and advocacy projects. They are still inspired by Girish’s initial motivation to think of the last people in society and to: “Think globally, but act locally.”
As a result, they can demonstrate significant impact in Ahmednagar, the largest district in Maharashtra with a population of over 5 million living in semi-rural and rural communities. Their achievements over the last three decades include:
- Bringing an end to the use of minors in the sex trade district-wide
- Stopping second-generation prostitution in our district
- 100% condom usage among sex workers
- Putting an end to police bribery, atrocities committed on sex workers and minor girls by the police, brothel-keepers, private money-lenders, gangsters and customers in all our red-light areas
- From day one, there have been at least two former sex workers on their Board of Trustees
- A reduction of new cases of HIV in sex workers, from 17% to 3.4%
- A reduction of new cases of STDs in sex workers, from 56% to 2.3%
- Operating the #1-ranked Childline in India
- By working for child rights and protection they have reduced child labour, marriage and abuse and created a child-friendly government system and society in Ahmednagar District
- Bringing 22 double life prison sentences, to high profile local men operating an illegal sex ring with minors, in a ground breaking legal case
- Sex workers children are completing their full 12 years of school education before reintegrating back into society
- Over 2,000 children have attended extra-curricular and educational classes in 7 slums of Ahmednagar and over 20,000 slum-dwellers have enjoyed access to our other support services.
- Helping other communities to use our model to create their own education centers including three self-managed Balbhavans which opened in our district in 2016.
- A 350% rise in A and B grades in our slum schools over three years (2014-2017)
- Opening the first hospital dedicated to the treatment of people living with HIV/AIDS
- Launching the first Community Radio in the district in 2011
- Consulting on the latest Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA) guidelines
- The launching of Satyamev Jayate (Truth Alone Triumphs) TV Show at Snehalaya – the hugely popular show presented by Amir Khan was the first of its kind in India tackling burning social issues such as female infanticide
- In 2019, they partnered with Paani Foundation to tackle drought and make villages water-abundant through their 2019 Water Cup competition
- Receiving the 2012 Presidential Award for grassroots and community services to India
- Inspiring, mentoring and supporting other civil society members, institutions and over 25 grassroots NGOs to replicate our work to address important social issues in their regions.
Dr. Durgabai Deshmukh National Award
For outstanding and innovative contribution to women’s welfare and empowerment for over two decades. Presented by the President of India.
Indians for Collective Action (USA) Golden Jubilee Award
Spirit of Humanity Award for Education
Polestar Award for Social Impact
Real Hero Award
Mumbai for women empowerment presented by The Reliance Foundation
Praj Maha Entrepreneur Award
Team NomadLawyer salutes the effort of Dr. Kulkarni. India needs more sensitive yet bold citizens like Dr Kulkarni who hold the baton of social change and bring light in the lives of thousands. Kudos to such Indian heroes.
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