Published: 01st December 2020
World AIDS Day: How Girish Kulkarni has been working to educate kids born to HIV parents in red light areas
Girish Kulkarni 's organisation, Snehalaya has been a home to over one lakh people who suffered from the disease and children whose future can be bright if we work in their interest
Back in the 1980s, when India and several developing countries encountered a slew of HIV cases, there were a bunch of misconceptions among people, lack of awareness and no medicine for those who were infected from the disease. It was during this time that Girish Kulkarni, Founder of Snehalaya, started working with the affected. Snehalaya is a non-profit organisation in Ahmednagar in Maharashtra that works in the interest of children, sex workers and LGBT communities affected by HIV.
But what led Girish to start this NGO is an interesting story. He tells us, "I was born and brought up in a middle-class family. My parents were teachers and they gave utmost importance to education. Even when I was doing well in academics, they sent me to English and Maths classes after school hours. While the Maths class happened in one area, the English class took place in a different location. We had to rush to our English tuitions as it was far away. But being independent and with a mind to explore everything, I would take shortcuts to my English class. It was at this time that I passed through the red light areas in Ahmednagar. I observed young girls and women standing in the corridors of the brothels and selling their bodies. This made a deep impact on my mind."
Girish Kulkarni, Founder of Snehalaya
Once when he was passing through the same route, he came across a girl being beaten badly for contracting Syphilis. "My heart cried deeply and I questioned myself about what can be done. Being just a school boy, I couldn't anything to help them. When I went to college, I made friends with those who lived in these red light areas, Whenever I asked them about going to their homes, they avoided inviting me because of the situation that existed there. However, one day, I insisted. I observed the difficulties his sister and mother had to go through to earn their livelihood and pay the college fees. That's when I decided to work to help HIV positive people and create awareness among people about the same."
Being young, Girish didn't know where to start, and so, he asked the women in red light areas to list their problems in a bid to understand their needs. They requested him to take care of their children. Everyday, he would take their children to the park, tell them stories, play with them and get them snacks to eat. Within a short period of time, Girish earned the trust of these women and he then began to tell them about their rights. "It was the first time when several women in red light areas marched in rallies against the harassment that happened at police stations and government offices when they went to complain. People had a wrong perception about these women and the disease. Hence, we started conducting awareness campaigns so that both people and women who were involved in sex work understand how the disease spreads. With health camps and government hospitals, we treated the ones who were almost dying on the road due to HIV. A lot of these women literally came back to life," says Girish, who has been working for over 20 years for the HIV infected.
Gradually, the perception among people about the disease and sex workers changed. He explains, "Since I wanted to bring a change in the perception of people, I adviced three women who were once sex workers to be part of Snehalaya. We trained and counselled them to prepare for their roles at Snehalaya. Till today, we continue to appoint two women in our organisation who were sex workers earlier. This gives them confidence that life can be different for them and they will leave their previous work to bring change in the society. Now, Snehalaya is a place where more than 400 women and members of LBGTQ communities come here and take treatment and shelter. Not just women, the campus is a home to many adolescent boys, girls and children who continue their studies by being at our centres. We provide them with the vocational training and other skills so that can get them a decent job. It has been over 30 years and we have worked with over one lakh people in 17 different projects."
Fast forward to 2020 — Girish is living the dream as Snehalaya has been supporting the poor and needy in Ahmednagar during the pandemic. They provided the people living in the red light areas with the groceries and medicines and asked them to stop their work for time being. "We don't want society to blame women involved in sex work even for spreading COVID-19. Hence, we asked them to stop their job for time being and they agreed to it. It is high time that the current and future governments work in the interest of these communities who form a larger part of our society," he concludes.