As a young child, Girish Kulkarni would take a short cut between tutoring classes through a few small Ahmednagar lanes. He was too young to understand what was happening in those lanes that formed one of the city’s busy red light areas but he did question why the children he saw there weren’t going to school with him. As he grew older and began to realise what these lanes represented he thought: “What if this was my sister, my mother, my grandmother?”
As a college student, he returned to the area to ask how he could help. The women were resistant to him, taunting and mocking him for wasting his time, until a 19-year-old revealed that it was too late for her, her life was over, but he could help her children. He started taking those two children to the park for a few hours a day, sharing stories and teaching them to ride bicycles. Within four months he had 70 children joining his daily excursions. It was 1989 and Snehalaya was born!
Within a few years, Girish was gifted some land where he and a handful of friends rolled up their sleeves to build a small dome structure. This served as a school by day and a shelter by night. Snehalaya’s Rehabilitation Center has grown around this dome and is now home to over 150 children of sex workers, orphans and semi-orphans and those living with HIV/AIDS.
The young Girish had recognised the value of education and Snehalaya remains focused on breaking the crippling cycles of exploitation and poverty through empowering the children of marginalized communities in the classroom. Snehalaya English Medium School (SEMS) opened in 2010, in response to the needs of our children who were struggling in mainstream schools, facing discrimination and regular absences for hospital visits and health-related issues. Having our own school meant we could accommodate and respond to all of their individual needs.
Initially catering to a handful of students from our shelter home, sometimes studying under the shade of a tree, our children have grown with our school, with our first batch of graduates passing their 10th standard exams in 2020. In 2015, we opened our school doors to our local community, primarily daily wage workers and slum dwellers, offering subsidised and quality education. With 70% of our pupils now coming from outside our center, we are integrating the children in our care with those from the community and raising awareness of the facts about HIV and sex work to reduce the associated stigmas.
Snehalaya believes that every child deserves to live a life free from cruelty, discrimination and violence. As well as interactions with social workers and activists, our children benefit from regular international visitors, bringing the world to their classrooms. This has included our school participating in the British Council’s Connecting Classrooms program which saw an exchange with Welland Park Academy in the UK. Over five years, their teachers visited our school sharing training on best practice and our teachers were able to visit the UK to witness their education system first-hand applying their experience to their own teaching practices.
Our children are amazing, overcoming many challenges in their young lives but with the strength and resilience to do us and themselves proud. Four batches of students have now completed their 10th standard with 100% pass rates every year. Our first school topper was HIV positive, proving that with the right support all children can succeed. In the past three years, our other toppers have included children whose parents are illiterate daily-wage workers with their marks ranging from 76 to 94%.
Many of our students are inspired by our work to help others in society. Many are already on the path to great careers where they will be able to support their families and communities. This includes some studying and working in software engineering, hotel management, photography, social work, furniture design, hairdressing and nursing.
We are excited to be starting our 14th year of delivering affordable and quality education with our School Chale Hum program today and can’t wait to see where this year takes us all.