Girish Kulkarni grew up in Ahmednagar enjoying life in a middle-class, loving, and supportive family. Although doing well academically, at the age of eight his parents enrolled him in after-school maths and English classes. These classes took place in different venues and there was a real scramble at the end of maths as everyone ran out of the building dashing to make it to the front of their English class about 1km away. Demonstrating a logic that would serve him well in later years, Girish would hold back and instead of taking a shorter route. This took him through one of the city’s red-light areas, an area children were generally forbidden to enter. The bold young Girish saw no reason why his parents would ever need to know about his clever route and invariably sat patiently waiting at the front of the class for his classmates to arrive.
Wandering through the narrow alleys, he regularly saw girls his own age sitting outside brothels selling their bodies to the highest bidder. Even at this young age, the injustice of being born into a poor situation had a profound impact on him as
he appreciated his own ‘luck’ at being able to go to school, have food in his stomach, and loving parents to protect him from the horrors these girls faced every day. He questioned it constantly and saw the full impact of their misery when he witnessed a naked child being beaten and tortured with chilies rubbed on her genitals. Her crime? She had contracted syphilis and was no longer able to work. The young Girish felt powerless to help and his inability to intervene haunted him into early adulthood.
When Girish started college he made many friends, including one too embarrassed to invite friends to their home in the red-light area. When they finally did allow Girish to visit, he found their 15-year-old sister and mother in her 40s both employed as female sex workers alongside their 70-year-old grandmother who was also selling her services for the price of a cup of tea. Again, Girish didn’t know how he could help. Joining youth organisations with their slogans of changing the world didn’t 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 think globally but act locally.
Dr Girish Kulkarni
Inspired by the Gandhian philosophy of serving the last people 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?” He approached the sex workers to ask how he could help and wanting nothing for themselves they said, “Take our children”. So, each day Girish 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.
In the simple act of encouraging the children to respect their mothers by touching their feet each day in gratitude and collecting food from wedding parties to distribute to those who may not have earnt money that day, he slowly earned the trust of women more used to being shunned and disrespected by society. With few or no rights, it was socially accepted for men walking through the red-light areas to casually grope and harass the workers. When one woman went to the police to report harassment, instead of helping they raped and robbed her. The sex workers, fuelled by Girish’s influence, rallied and marched against them. The guilty parties were transferred and punished and for the first time the sex workers had a platform to speak from.
In 1989, as the public’s perceptions of sex workers began to shift, Girish founded Snehalaya. He insisted that three of the sex workers become trustees, coaching and counselling them in their new roles. (Although the original and subsequent trustees have since died from HIV-related illnesses Snehalaya has always maintained at least two sex workers to represent their community at the highest level of our organization.)
When HIV and AIDS started ravaging the community, Girish set up a Death with Dignity program, a few roadside huts and a bike attached to a cart which provided palliative care to some of India’s first AIDS casualties.
Girish’s actions almost two decades ago are proof that small actions can have a large impact. Today, Snehalaya works across 17 projects, that over 100,000 people have benefited from, saving countless lives and giving dignity back to those marginalised by society.
Now an esteemed scholar, recognised by the nation and the Indian President for giving a voice and platform for change to India's hidden population, it is Girish Kulkarni’s vision that inspires Snehalaya in all our work. Despite the accolades, Girish remains humble, describing himself as a volunteer and when asked about his motivations at such a young age, says:
“I was motivated by my own burden of guilt. I found that working to satisfy that, was much more sustainable than being moved by compassion. To me, that creates unrealistic expectations and places the burden on others. Ultimately their responses to your actions remain out of your control which can lead to frustrations and dissatisfaction, it’s much more rewarding to be clear and focused on your own purpose.”