Snehalaya national award is an award for human decency
The team are based in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra, working with Snehalaya, which supports young people who have been exploited by the sex trade, and Sanjay Nagar, which works to improve the lives of leprosy sufferers and their families.
Journalism student, Daniel Whitelegg, spoke to Team Leader, Joyce Connolly, to find out more.
In 1989, Dr. Girish Kulkarni and a small group of friends rescued a 4 year old girl from a brothel-keeper in India. Today, Dr. Girish Kulkarni and a much bigger group of friends are providing refuge for over 450 children throughout the whole Ahmednagar district and providing hope for those who need it most.
In those 23 years, Snehalaya has developed into an admirable and award-winning organisation whose work in the slums has gained national recognition and been the perfect example of how one act of human decency can grow into something so much more. Snehalaya is a charity in the Maharashtra state of western India which was founded by social service worker Dr. Girish Kulkarni who had long decided he would dedicate his life to helping the more neglected sections of society.
Fortunately this act of decency has been echoed from all over the world with a constant stream of volunteers and well wishers helping the Non-Governmental organisation (NGO) to achieve its goals.
One such group comes from Leeds Metropolitan University and is led by Joyce Connolly, Senior Internal Communications Officer at the university. She spoke openly and passionately about the work done at Snehalaya. Since building a relationship with the charity in 2006, Leeds Met has raised £7000 for Snehalaya and often assembles groups of students who go out to India and give their time to an establishment that relies on its passionate volunteers.
Joyce said of Dr. Kulkarni, "He is a real hero, who despite his shy nature has done a really unbelievable job and deserves all the recognition he can get."
All he needed was a catalyst, a catalyst which would focus his efforts and be the flame for which would fuel everything thereafter. Unfortunately this would come in horrific circumstances. When Dr. Kulkarni and a group of friends were walking through one of Ahmednagar's infamous slums, they came across a 4 year old girl who was found brutally tortured by a brothel-keeper. With no help from police, in an area predominantly ruled by gangs and pimps, Girish and his friends rescued the girl and took her back to his home. This saw the birth of Snehalaya.
Joyce continued: "As Snehalaya receives little help from the government, it relies almost entirely on donations from well-wishers all over the world. These stretch as far as the US, Holland and indeed Leeds Met University."
Other than these donations, Dr. Girish Kulkarni funds the project himself and as a start up had to sell his house. However it's the army of volunteers that keep the heart of this project beating.
"Regardless of the money, it's the helpers which bring the most to Snehalaya", Joyce added. "All that's expected from the volunteers is that they go out there, throw themselves into it and give their time to teach, decorate and provide aspirations for the people who live there".
Snehalaya decided to focus its work on the vulnerable women and children living in these slums who had been forced into exploitation and sexual trafficking.
"Knowing that the children of the women who had been forced into these circumstances were more likely to turn to crime and prostitution, Dr.Kulkarni built a one room shelter just outside of the city."
This haven provided not only accommodation and food, but also education and medical treatment with the hope that such facilities could provide the new tart for these children that will help them go on to escape poverty.
There are currently 450 children living within the Snehalaya accommodation, with nearly 250 of those carrying AIDs. As for the commercial sex workers themselves, the charity has done an outstanding job in reducing STI infection from 60% to 2% in the thousands of people involved. They also have their own hospital where they can provide respite AIDs care, as well as an outpatient clinic which works hard to supply HIV drugs to those who need it.
This facility was the hub from which Girish's charitable empire could grow. In 1996, Snehalaya started its own 24 hour helpline which provided a glimmer of hope for thousands of children in Ahmednagar. This was the first of its kind in India and in the next 7 years it would help Snehalaya tackle over 7000 successful cases. Despite lacking in help from the Indian government initially, their efforts didn't go unnoticed and in 2003 this was integrated into a new National Childline which not only increased their reach to millions, but also illustrated the good work that the organisation had been doing.
Joyce was keen to add:"As a side to this, they also developed an adoption centre called Shenhankur in which children could be taken out of the slums, rehabilitated and sent to good homes within India...this has been a real relief for unwed mothers".
"Perhaps Snehalaya's biggest achievement has come in their abolition of using children in the flesh trade. Despite much resistance from the authorities to get involved, the organisation persevered and regardless of legal battles and high cost, eventually saw their struggle justified."
This has been mirrored by their work in rehabilitating victims of the flesh trade and giving them training and skills to kick start their lives. In fact, Snehalaya teaches vocational skills to women throughout the Ahmednagar district as well as educating over 900 children every day. This is helped by an IT centre known as the 'centre of hope', which provides computing courses for the women and children.
Joyce said:"The facilities they have are really surprising and outstanding when you think about where it's all come from. Every time we go out there it grows a bit more and I can't imagine what will have changed next time we go".
As recently as November, Snehalaya was awarded the prestigious Dr. Durgabai Deshmukh award for their work in the development of women. This national recognition is fitting for a small, local charity which has grown into so much more, and whose achievements can be seen in the hundreds of thousands of smiles in Maharashtra.
Follow the team's volunteering adventures via their blog here..
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