Born into a lower-middle-class family in Maharashtra, Girish Kulkarni was surrounded by family members who contributed to India’s freedom struggle. From a very young age, he was introduced to many inspiring social workers and leaders who followed Gandhian principles.
Both teachers, Girish’s parents prioritised education and sent him for mathematics tuition classes in Class VIII. The shortest route to the class was through Chitra Galli, one of the red light areas in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra. During one of his walks, he came across a girl of his age who was being beaten by local goons because she had an STD and could not be forced into sex work.
“It was a horrifying sight for me to see a girl of my age being tortured. At that time, I asked myself if I should just think about doing something that can help girls like her,” Girish.
Soon, Girish joined college where he made several friends, one of whom lived in the red-light area. He was too embarrassed to invite Girish and the others to his place, but once he did, Girish was shocked to find out that his mother, sister and grandmother were all into sex work. As much as he wanted to help, Girish knew he couldn’t.
Inspired by how Mahatma Gandhi served the poorest of the poor, Girish began imbibing those principles in his life as well. He volunteered at many places and was a social activist working for many causes. Despite his efforts, he felt that he needed to help those women in the red-light area who were struggling to live a life with dignity, unable to leave their profession.
In 1989, he founded Snehalaya, an NGO that works in the verticals of education, healthcare, rehabilitation, awareness, and campaigns.
The story of Snehalaya
Girish shares that people mostly had negative perceptions about sex workers. He says that most people at the time believed that they were in the job because it was easy money to curb their addiction. But that was far from the truth.
“The women were not treated well, and were raped and tortured very often. Their earnings were meagre, not even enough to feed their children,” he says.
He then went to these areas in Ahmednagar to understand the situation of these women, and also teach them about addiction and how to overcome it. He realised that most of the women’s earnings were taken away by ‘brokers’ and pimps, who gave them as little as Rs 10 per customer.
“Even if she serves 10 customers in a day, she wouldn’t make enough to feed her children,” he notes. One day, he came across a 16-year-old girl who had two children – one back home and one three-year-old son who stayed with them. She requested Girish to help her child since she didn’t want a similar fate for them, having been brought into sex work at the age of 13.
That’s when he decided to provide basic education to the children and started Snehalaya. He started with two children and within two months, began teaching 80 children from different red-light areas in India when he was just 19 years old. He also provided them with snacks and told them stories to keep them occupied.
What was supposed to be a small project began a lifetime commitment for Girish, and Snehalaya was officially registered in 1991. A few of his friends who had joined initially, left the NGO because to go their separate ways. So, Girish thought, “why should we only work for them when we can work with them?”
He employed three sex workers as Trustees; one of them had been a government employee who, by a stroke of bad luck, ended up in a brothel. This opportunity gave the women a sense of empowerment and dignity.
While he began educating children from several brothels, there were times when he couldn’t see light at the end of the tunnel. Once, several women had escaped a brothel, unable to stand the torture inflicted by the customers. However, they left their children behind. Not knowing what to do with them,
the brothel owners approached Girish to take them.
“I wanted to help them and was ready to give them shelter, but they refused to give up the girls because they wanted to drag them into sex work,” Girish says.
Girish, who refused to only take boys, took all the children home. But even at home, his parents, despite being supportive, said they couldn’t take care of the children by themselves. So, he hired some of the sex workers over the age of 60 to take care of them.