Dr Girish Kulkarni’s NGO, Snehalaya, strives every day to ensure that every child and woman has the right to live a life free from inequality, cruelty and discrimination.
We are often programmed to ignore certain sections of society; even talking about them or moving around their habitats is considered taboo. While a bunch of progressive thinkers may speak about the stigmatisation and ostracisation of sex workers, only a handful are bold enough to come forward and make some efforts to build an inclusive environment for them and their families.
Dr Girish Kulkarni — a former journalist, a professor, a PhD scholar and an active social worker — belongs to the latter-mentioned tribe, and Snehalaya is his endeavour to bring that positive change for the ones who society likes to ignore. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of Antyodaya, which means the rise of the last person, Dr Girish Kulkarni’s NGO relentlessly works for the welfare of children and women who face injustice and exploitation.
Recalling the moment that led to the start of Snehalaya, Dr Priti Bhombe, spokesperson for Snehalaya says, “Dr Girish Kulkarni was eight-year-old when he started taking a shorter route to go for his tuition classes. This route took him through one of the city’s red-light areas, where he saw girls his age sitting outside brothels and selling their bodies to the highest bidder. Even at this young age, the injustice of the situation had a profound impact on him. Especially, when he witnessed a naked child, contracted with syphilis, being beaten and tortured, as she would no longer be able to work. He felt extreme helplessness, and his inability to intervene haunted him into early adulthood. When he started college, he was reminded of what he had witnessed when a friend took him home to the red-light area where his mother, sister and grandmother were all sex workers. He had joined youth volunteer organisations, but their slogans of changing the world did not seem to offer the direct action he felt was necessary. Realising that his own time and resources were limited but also wanting to ease his conscience, he decided to at least do something. He approached some sex workers to ask how he could help, and they asked him to save their children. So, each day Dr Kulkarni would turn up to pick up two children and take them to a park, buy them snacks, tell them stories or teach them how to ride bicycles. Word soon spread, and within four months, he was entertaining 80 children and was building the trust and respect of the sex worker community.”
Remarkably, Girish was hardly a 19-year-old young lad, when he embarked on this small project, which soon translated into his lifetime mission. Dr Priti adds, “In 1989, Dr Kulkarni founded Snehalaya, appointing three sex workers as trustees. When HIV and AIDS started ravaging the community, Dr Kulkarni set up a ‘Death with Dignity’ program, where a few roadside huts and a bike attached to a cart provided palliative care to some of India’s first AIDS casualties.”
Dr Girish Kulkarni’s actions, three decades ago, are proof that the smallest acts have the power to bring about a sea of change. Today, Snehalaya has saved countless lives and has given dignity back to those marginalised by society. The NGO works across 23 projects in rehabilitation, health, and education and spreads awareness about social issues about women, children and HIV AIDS, wherein nearly 200000 people have befitted from its initiatives.
Thanks to Dr Kulkarni’s persistent effort, today, there are no underage women in the flesh trade in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra, India. He has also ensured the rehabilitation of sex workers and their children by stopping second-generation prostitution. His organisation, Snehalaya’s, commitment to ensuring a life free from inequality, cruelty and discrimination for every woman and child has brought several admirable achievements. It has been estimated that Snehalaya's healthcare projects' attempts have helped reduced sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, by 90 per cent in Ahmednagar. The number of HIV cases has dropped from 17 per cent to 3.4 per cent, while the number of STDs have dropped from 56 to 2.3 per cent. Currently, over 2000 children are enrolled in extracurricular and educational classes in Ahmednagar’s slums as well as over 20000 people have benefited from the support services that Snehalaya provides. Snehalaya also provides vocational training at the IT centre in the city for over 200 young people. To further work at making the environment for marginalised sections of society more inclusive, Snehalaya has also been inspiring and mentoring over 25 grassroots non-government organisations to work on important social issues.
Snehalaya and Dr Girish Kulkarni’s noteworthy work was also much-admired on the TV show Satyamev Jayate, which was conceptualised and anchored by Indian film actor Aamir Khan. Snehalaya has also been honoured by Dr Durgabai Deshmukh National Award for its outstanding and innovative contribution to women's welfare and empowerment for over three decades.
Snehalaya’s dedication towards empowering women, children and LGBT communities affected by poverty and the commercial sex industry is undoubtedly commendable and applaud worthy, however, it has not been an easy journey. Talking about the challenges faced by the organisation, Dr Priti discloses, “Initially we faced major challenges as the work done was totally against the tide. Snehalaya faced bullying and pressure from societal elements, brothel owners, people in high places with vested interests in the sex industry, and many more. Dr Kulkarni was often threatened by the so-called white-collar citizens and the who’s who of the city for trying to uplift the lives of sex workers. When a major sex scandal about the trafficking of minor girls was busted by Dr Kulkarni and his colleagues, the majority of the big names in the district were exposed. Those were highly testing times, but ultimately the results were great as the criminals were sentenced to 22 years of double life imprisonment. After this incident, Snehalaya’s work has been recognised far and wide, and the challenges have reduced.”
In its 32 years journey, Snehalaya has been a pioneer in working on the most burning issues of society, and with changing trends, Snehalaya has made it a point to include newer initiatives. “We have also changed how we reach out to our beneficiaries/donors/stakeholders, but also continue with some of the age-old time-tested ways. The projects which were not relevant were closed and replaced by newer and innovative projects. Since inception, two female sex workers and one representative of the MSM or LGBTQ community have been on our trustee board. Many of our ex-beneficiaries are our life members and employees. All of them have a say in the policies of Snehalaya. This helps us to identify current needs of the communities we work with, increasing the possibility of success in whatever we do,” informs Dr Priti.
She continues, “Snehalaya has set out several objectives as part of their mission this year. These include a 'Child Marriage Free District' initiative, a 'Back to Community Program' for children in shelter homes through aftercare homes, an ideal slum re-development and replicable module designing- Livelihood focused project, advocacy and awareness campaigns in villages to eradicate gender related atrocities, the creation of training modules for replicable projects like Balbhavan and Snehadhar, and finally the creation of a systemic individualistic intervention and rehabilitation plan for each beneficiary. Additionally, Snehalaya is striving to increase awareness about mental health issues, giving focussed solutions for people living with mental ailments like Schizophrenia and providing various therapies for mental ailments under one roof for those in need.”
Not just the women and children belonging to the lower strata of society, but Snehalaya has also touched the lives of each individual associated with it. Commenting about the same, Dr Priti says proudly, “Snehalaya has shaped the lives not only of its beneficiaries but also the employees, volunteers, other sister organisations-their founders, national and international visitors, students attending our Yuvanirman camps, and all those who have known Snehalaya in some or the other way. Snehalaya gives the much-needed love, care and affection, which is an integral basic need of all humans. In the journey of more than three decades, Snehalaya has been the home of love for us all. It is one of the few organisations, which remains highly engaged in grassroots work and also works at the advocacy level when it comes to the rights of women and children. Though it is primarily an employee-driven organisation, we welcome some of the best volunteers from across India as well as abroad. Snehalaya has encouraged more than 25 new social organisations and their group of founders to start work in their areas on issues which are prevalent in their work area. We look forward to spreading this awareness of giving back to society in more youths to ensure a gradual but definite change in the world.”
With his incredible contribution to society, it is no surprise that Dr Girish Kulkarni has been invited to various workshops and motivational gatherings to share his story and inspire others. He has been invited to speak at several places as an expert, including TEDx India, JNU, Think India, IIT Delhi, Rambhau Mhalgi Pratishthan, Pune, and the Bhabha Atomic Research Center, Trombay.
Driven by the motto — “Who else but me? If not today, then when?” Dr Girish Kulkarni has always believed that if we want to change society, we ourselves need to start working to achieve it, and the best time to start working for it is now and today!
More power to this humanitarian and social worker, may his tribe increase.
Darpan Salutes Dr Girish Kulkarni and his praiseworthy foundation — Snehalaya, home of love.
Note: Those wanting to assist Snehalaya with its mission can start by sharing the NGO’s social media posts and following their official social media pages. One can even connect with the organisation for volunteering opportunities by writing to them at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. People wanting to further extend a helping hand can also run fundraisers on various crowdfunding platforms like Give India, Global Giving, etc… For more details to associate with the organisation visit Snehalaya’s website — www.snehalaya.org
Snehalaya’s Current Projects At A Glance:
• Snehankur: Started in 2004 to provide Neonatal and post-natal facilities for abandoned infants and children up to 6 years
• Snehadhar: : Strives to provide shelter, counselling, legal aid, vocational training and education, for young girls and women in difficult circumstances
• The One-Stop Centre [SAKHI]: Helps oppressed and exploited women find justice. Medical facilities are provided to victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, acid attacks, as well as assistance to seek legal aid is provided
• Childline: Free children’s helpline — 1098. Started in 2003, we work closely with local emergency and allied services to counsel and rescue children who are at risk
• Rehab Center: We offer foster care to orphans and children who have been abandoned by their families, as well as minors who have been rescued from the sex trade and children living with HIV
• FBC: Our Family-Based Care team is fully committed to extending our current childcare provision to introduce more family-based care options to our current beneficiaries living in our childcare institution to ensure their full development
• Himmatgram: Since its inception in 2009, this organic 30 acre farm with a dairy has provided an alternative to former sex workers and people with HIV to assist them to make a new life for themselves that is self-sufficient and contributes to the wellbeing of their families
• GKN centre for rehab: Started in 2016 for 18-year-old and above boys, the rehab centre provides short-term dormitory accommodation and food.
• Manasgram: Mentally unstable patients are treated and rehabilitated through this project.
• Balbhavan: Started in 2003 in slums, we impart, value education and community development, playgroups, after school tuition, organize health camps and workshops, sports and cultural activities, initiate self-help groups
• Snehalaya English Medium School: Provides education to children struggling in mainstream school as a result of their financial constraints or health issues
• Centre of Hope-IT centre: Imparting Computer classes for all levels, providing knowledge from word processing basics to specialised courses software and Photoshop to students who are unable to pursue computer courses due to poor economic conditions
• Agriculture Training Centre: Residential project since 2016, which provides employability-orientated training for farming technicians and agri- entrepreneurs from drought stricken areas - migration
• Snehalaya Skill Development project: Started in October 2020, this project introduces the school children from standard 8th to 10th to various skill enhancement courses like beautician, 2 wheeler repair, fabrication etc…so that they can choose a trade of their choice if they want to pursue a career in the same
• Caring friends hospital and research centre: Started in a make shift facility in 1994, this centre is now converted to a 30 bedded hospital in 2017 which provides healthcare and latest medical treatment to those that others turn away due to financial constraints and HIV/AIDS
• Snehjyot TI 1, TI2 & Snehabandhan: We rescue and rehabilitate trafficked and forced sex workers, provide them with a safe haven, free counselling, legal aid, medical facilities, vocational training and alternatives to sex work, for the ones who wish to start a new life.
• Mobile Medical care unit: The Mobile Medical Van is used to conduct health camps at remote rural areas and villages which do not have access to medical facilities easily.
• Community Health Centre: Highly maintained Health facility centre for all at subsidized rates
• Yuvanirman: Since 2003, we welcome the next generation of social workers and activists to learn more about our work and discuss social issues, and motivate them to give back to the society
• Radionagar 90.4 FM: This is the first community radio station in Ahmednagar started in 2011, broadcasting in Marathi/Hindi languages 15 hours/day creating awareness about social issues through infotainment and demystifying the radio technology for the masses
• Krushimitra: This project aims at biodiversity conservation through organic farming and providing suitable markets for organic produce