When Girish Kulkarni was in college, his friends took turns inviting each other to their homes. “Let’s go to my place,” they’d say. Except one friend. He’d go to other people’s houses, but wouldn’t invite anyone else over to his. If anyone asked where he lived, he’d deflect the question.
Curious, Girish and his friends found the guy’s address and set out for his house. To their utter surprise, they ended up at a house right in the middle of the red light district in Ahmednagar. Their friend’s mother was in the world’s oldest profession. So was his 14-year-old sister.
Their friend was deeply embarrassed but, to his credit, spoke up. “How would you feel if it were your mother and sister?” he demanded of Girish.This was a turning point for young Girish, now an esteemed professor.
He made it his life’s mission to provide a home for children of prostitutes. He wanted to give them a safe space to grow up like normal children. He didn’t want them to have to run out to buy cigarettes and booze for customers. He didn’t want them to succumb to addictions at an early age – or be drawn into prostitution themselves.
Over the past 20 years, Professor Girish Kulkarni and his team have all but eradicated underage prostitution in Ahmednagar – unique in India – by rescuing both the children of prostitutes and the children brought in as sex slaves.
Rameshbhai of Caring Friends accompanied me to the Snehalaya campus that Girish has built on the city outskirts, including facilities for children born with HIV and a hospital for HIV-infected adults.
The children are educated in the city’s best schools, and Girish is building a topflight high school on the campus. I met the full range of kids, from little ones who were newly rescued to a 25-year-old woman who is pursuing her computer science degree.
Snehalaya also runs educational and outreach programs to reduce infection by promoting safer practices among female sex workers and gays. A 24/7 child line responds to calls about abused children, child labour, child beggars, and child prostitutes. Snehalaya also runs a home for unwed mothers and an adoption center.
Snehalaya has an impressive second and third level of leadership and management. This provides a depth of leadership, continuity and scalability that many NGO’s miss. Girish continues to teach a class in political science at the local college; many of his students are so inspired by his commitment and passion that they end up joining Snehalaya.
“I wouldn’t trade this experience for a regular job that pays twice as much,” one told me. Also impressive: more than 25% of Snehalaya’s funding comes from Ahmednagar’s concerned citizens.
President Suwalalji Shinghvi, who encourages local families to visit and support the campus, is a warm and caring old man – he is popularly known as Bapu, both for his age and his Gandhi-like qualities – who spends time with the children, blowing balloons and playing with them.
Rameshbhai told me that over the years Bapu has brought several young women of marriageable age, the children of sex workers, into his own house to live for six months amongst his own daughters-in-law to teach them how to behave like a proper Indian ‘bahu’. I was moved beyond words.
This is a wonderful opportunity to meet with people like who are in a different league in terms of their ability to make a difference to the world around them. Do share your own experiences with similar institutions, and your thoughts.