How Dr Girish Kulkarni Founded One Of India's Largest NGOs For Sex Workers

Photo Courtesy: Boyish
Photo Courtesy: BoyishBoyish

Boyish x Homegrown’s 6-part essay series unpacks gender norms that impact boys in India and narrates inspirational stories of Indian men who defied such stereotypes. Many boys choose professional lives based on how they perceive masculinity and are bound to the demands and duties of manhood. With a poor understanding of what being masculine means, they often miss out on their true and happy self. This series is an attempt to change that.

Sex work is considered to be one of the oldest professions in the world. While men certainly participate as sex workers, the lion’s share of man’s role in it is of the customer — a lecherous figure with no morals, no empathy, selfishly engaging in paid sex to satisfy his needs. For centuries, men as primary customers of sex work has been the dominant narrative and today, it has led us to a point where harmful reductives like “men have no morals” or “men are just born this way” are casually thrown and widely accepted. The travesty of this narrative is on young boys, who we start suspecting early in their lives, often not giving them a safe space to understand the extremely complex topic of sex and sexuality and their role in it. If you are a young boy passing through a red-light area or showcasing curiosity about this topic then you are often considered a problem — a boy with immoral motives.

Today, most social work to help sex workers like educating their children, providing medical and psychological support, preventing violence, sexual health advocacy and training etc. is all being led by women. Leading organizations like Apne Aap, Prajwala and Sangram all have women-led teams. In fact, social work, in general, has become a female-majority profession. Several studies and research have shown that men, even when present, largely stick to managerial roles instead of being on the frontlines. There are many reasons for this — lack of money, lower social status, and a boycott by other men. But, perhaps, the biggest reason is the misconception that men lack the emotional capacity to work on the frontlines of social work, especially with women and children. Especially on topics like sex work. So can a young man really pursue social work to help elevate the lives of women sex workers? I was sceptical at first but was elated to learn about the story of Dr Girish Kulkarni, founder of Snehalaya — an NGO that provides aid to women, children, and LGBTQ communities affected by HIV, AIDS, and sex trafficking.

Early Days

Girish Kulkarni grew up in Ahmednagar, which is a small city in the state of Maharashtra. He enjoyed the happy, loving, middle-class life he was a part of. Like most other families in the neighbourhood, his family also enrolled him in math and English classes after school. For generations now, STEM education has been the only viable option for boys in India and Girish’s upbringing was no different in this regard. These classes were taught at different venues in the city which, and when the first class ended, there was a mad rush amongst the children to get to the other class. To improve his odds, Girish would wait till everyone else rushed out and then make his way through a shorter route that nobody else ventured through. The reason no one else did is that it ran through one of the city’s red-light areas — an area children were forbidden to enter. Crossing these alleys, Girish regularly saw girls his age trading and soliciting for sex. Shocked at first, young Girish immediately grew conscious of the incredible privilege he had in being able to go to school, and have a loving family, and be able to live his childhood.

Starting With Two Kids

In college, he made new friends, including some who had their homes in the red-light area. These friends always skirted around the idea of inviting any friend home. When they finally did allow Girish to visit, he found several members of their family working in the sex trade — from the 15-year-old sister to even the 70-year-old grandmother. Girish was dejected by what he saw. He wanted to help but did not know-how. When he ran his idea of helping the sex workers with his friends, no one came to his support. Many people questioned his motivations as well.

Even his closest allies thought that there were other marginalised groups such as the disabled that made for a better choice. Many also considered the women working in the sex trade as immoral and unworthy of help. But Girish had made up his mind to do something about it. The area had a number of abandoned children whose mothers had run away from the trade. So, one day, after consulting with local representatives of the area, he brought two children to his home and looked after them. He would feed them and teach them life skills. What began as caring for two children soon expanded to 80. After gaining the trust of the sex worker community over several years of volunteering work, Girish eventually founded the NGO Snehalaya in 1989.

The impact of Snehalaya has been monumental in India. Their work has benefited over 100,000 people, saving countless lives and being of service to the sex worker community. Girish himself has been bestowed with the President of India Award in 2012 for his service to his country as a social worker. Snehalaya has been running for over 30 years now and has been a beacon of change, thanks to the tireless work of Girish. When asked how he got the motivation to pursue this work at such a young age, Girish 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.”

It’s incredibly challenging for me to imagine a young man doing the work that Girish does. Growing up, I never witnessed doing social work as a possibility. It always conflicted with earning a living and survival, and hence, could never become a viable option. Not only is Girish’s story endearing in this regard, it evokes even more joy when I consider that Girish broached an area of work where I feel it’s hard for men to gain trust. The story of both Snehalaya and Girish is one of empathy and kindness for me, and it shows me that men can empathize.

This has been previously published as a part of Boyish Season 1. Boyish is a monthly publication in service of re-examining masculine norms in India. If the topic of masculinity is on your mind, you can subscribe to Boyish here.

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