Snehalaya in Ahmednagar in India

By Milena Rampoldi and Denise Nanni, ProMosaik. In the following a detailed interview with the organizsation Snehalaya in Ahmednagar in India. Would like to thank Joyce Connelly for all the information and photos.

On the website the program of the organization is announced:
“We have come a long way since 1989, when we started education programmes for a handful of children of sex workers and palliative care for people affected by AIDS. We now serve over 29,000 beneficiaries each year running 16 key projects across four key areas, education, healthcare, rehabilitation, and awareness, that help our beneficiaries thrive in life.
Our services are primarily for Women & Children and LGBT communities affected by poverty and the commercial sex industry.  We help to fight HIV and AIDS and to end human trafficking, improve education for deprived children and campaign for justice to bring rescue, rights and rehabilitation to those that need it. ​We never give up because we know, first hand, just how resilient our beneficiaries have to be, we’ve been there every step of the way….​
Tell us something about the history of Snehalaya.
Snehalaya was founded in 1989. It’s impossible to answer this without speaking about our founder Girish Kulkarni. 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.
He in turn is inspired by Swami Vivekananda’s belief that “They alone live, who live for others; the rest are more dead than alive!” and Mahatma Gandhi who said “Be the change you wish to see” and reminded us to always think of the last person in society, in Girish’s case this was the sex worker…
At 14-years old Girish turned up to his school friend’s home.  He did not know until he arrived that his friend and her mother were living and working in a brothel, in shockingly violent conditions. The brothel keeper was displeased by his visit and in a rage, inflicted indescribable abuse on the girl and her mother, making Girish stay to watch. Appalled by the brutality he had been forced to witness, the young Girish made a promise to himself.  He resolved there and then to devote his life to ending the atrocities faced by trafficked and enslaved women and children in India.
At 21, witnessing another sex worker being tortured, Girish took action thinking ‘what is this was my mother, grandmother or sister?’ and brought the woman and her children home to his parents’ house where they were given shelter. This was the start of Snehalaya as we know it today. From there he introduced daycare for the children of sex workers who were often forced to witness their mothers at work and were following them into the same trade. Realising that they were even more vulnerable during the night he then introduced night care at a center which he built by hand himself with help from his friends on a piece of land donated by another supporter.
From then onwards Girish and team have always looked at the root causes of trafficking into the sex industry expanding into slum education, setting up the first Childline in India, providing long-term shelter to the children of sex workers and alternative options and information on their rights. When little knowledge of AIDS and how it spreads was available, Snehalaya offered sex workers free sexual health checks and started a Death with Dignity programme, literally picking the dead bodies of AIDS victims up off the streets and opening one of the first hospital dedicated to the treatment and palliative care of the HIV/AIDS casualties that others refused to touch.
The journey has never been easy, winning the trust of the sex workers who had learned to trust no-one took time, the brothel keepers and pimps didn’t appreciate Snehalaya’s interference and the corruption surrounding the industry was rife – many people questioned why the team was bothering with them at all. Snehalaya took them all on, avoiding to give or take bribes or use violence in their movement to ensure that women and children were able to live their lives free from ‘inequality, cruelty and discrimination.’
What are the main activities of your organization?
We have come a long way since 1989, when we started education programmes for a handful of children of sex workers and palliative care for people affected by AIDS. We now serve over 29,000 beneficiaries each year running 16 key projects across four key areas, education, healthcare, rehabilitation, and awareness, that help our beneficiaries thrive in life.
Our services are primarily for Women and Children and LGBT communities affected by poverty and the commercial sex industry.  We help to fight HIV and AIDS and to end human trafficking, improve education for deprived children and campaign for justice to bring rescue, rights and rehabilitation to those that need it.
Our core mission remains to work with sex workers to help them stay healthy and ensure they are aware of their rights and offer them alternatives to sex work. We also continue to provide shelter for their children, providing them and education and vocational skills to help break the cycle of second generation prostitution, we have reduced this to 70% but our target remains 100%. Through our network of peer educators who were once sex workers themselves we are trusted partners of the women and together we have ensured there are no underage sex workers in our district, we have also reduced STs by 80% and there is 100% condom usage among sex workers. We also have two former sex workers on our Board of Trustees, ensuring their community is represented at the highest level within our organisation.
Our shelter home accommodates 250 children, half of whom are affected by HIV/AIDS and half who are the children of sex workers, girls rescued from the trade or refugees of natural disasters.
To help reduce trafficking and recruitment of sex workers we work within the poorest communities in seven of our city slums offering education, health camps, self-help groups and extracurricular activities to the people living there. Be empowering the women and children in these recruitment areas for opportunists including money lenders and pimps we are stemming the flow into the sex trade as well as improving their socio-economic status.
All of our projects come under four main themes – education, healthcare, rehabilitation, and awareness:
HEALTHCARE PROJECTS fulfil a high priority need in preventative healthcare and testing for high risk groups and non-discriminatory treatment and medical and palliative care for people living with HIV and AIDS (PLHA). Working independently and with government agencies we make life-saving treatments more widely available and also provide essential psychological support and educational programmes. Our innovative peer educator programmes have seen a vast improvement in the reduction of STDs amongst sex workers, a reduction in unwanted pregnancies, and an increase in the survival rates of PLHA.
Caring Friends Hospital & Resource Center
There are over two million People living with HIV and AIDS (PLHA) in India and Maharashtra ranks as the second highest state in total numbers. Snehalaya is home to the only hospital specialising in the care of patients affected by HIV in our state and we offer treatment and dignity to those that others turn away. PLHA require a range of specialised HIV services including care, treatment and support. The progression of the infection and consequent weakening of the immune system also makes them vulnerable to opportunistic infections (OIs) such as tuberculosis (TB).
Our first hospital opened its doors in 2008 and have since treated over 25,000 in- and out-patients. We have recently expanded our facilities to open the first 50-bed hospital providing free or subsidised healthcare and counselling to PLHA and their families which will improve the lives of thousands more patients. Including a surgical unit over 25,000 it will provide life-saving surgery to those who face discrimination and refusal of treatment based on their HIV status in our local hospitals. Other improved facilities include pre- and post-natal care, respirators, X-ray and laboratory testing facilities.
Snehjyot TI1 & TI2
Ahmednagar has a high military and migrant worker presence, is on a busy transport route and is severely affected by droughts. All of which contribute to high levels of prostitution and human trafficking and ultimately the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV and AIDS. There are constant challenges when dealing with trafficking and prostitution in India, especially when it comes to minors. Hundreds of thousands of children go missing and are sold into the sex trade every year.
We currently have over 3,000 registered female sex workers, men having sex with men (MSM) and LGBT community members accessing our services and are continuously reaching out to more. Our regional clinics and health camps distribute condoms and conduct sexual health education and sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing without judgment.
We rely on a network of peer mentors, recruited from our local sex workers and MSM communities, who play a key role in our outreach health work and education projects. We also rescue and rehabilitate trafficked and forced sex workers providing a safe haven, free counselling, legal aid, vocational training and alternatives to sex work. Through advocacy and awareness drives we are also challenging the culture of violence that surrounds this community.
This grassroots approach has drastically reduced the rates of STIs in the district by 80%, making it now one of the lowest in India. We can also confirm that thanks to counselling and awareness raising that there are no underage sex workers in our district.
Tamasha is a hugely popular traditional Maharashtran theatre with singing and dancing performed by local theatre groups. Jamkhed in Ahmednagar District is one area known for this art form and When the curtain falls, the crowds flocking to the nightly performances are increasingly demanding after-show entertainment in the form of sex workers.
Our newest project has been working within the area to build the trust of this vulnerable and closed community. We have over 400 performers currently registered with us accessing free condoms, sexual health clinics and testing and other support services, while also working with us to prevent underage prostitution. We are also hoping that our educational outreach and rehabilitation will reduce the number of sex workers and ultimately bring an end to the sex trade associated with Tamasha theatre.
EDUCATION has always been at the heart of what we do, and we believe that by investing in it we can tackle the major issues that face our society. We believe that everyone, no matter their background or social standing, has the right to education. Through targeted programmes and campaigns we highlight the importance of education in raising people out of poverty, reducing child trafficking and prostitution and destigmatizing class, disability and gender divides.
Snehalaya English Medium School
Our English Medium School was set up in 2010, primarily to provide education to our Rehab Center children who were struggling in mainstream school as their HIV medication and restricted health affected their concentration and attendance. Our curriculum accommodates their special needs and focusses on play-based activities and interactive learning through sports and the arts. We have also opened our doors to children from our slum and local communities, many of whom have been excluded from other schools or faced bullying due to their backgrounds or social standing, with the aim of improving social integration and acceptance.
We provide education up to 7th standard for 222 children aged 5 to 15, and have capacity to build this right up to 12th standard, after which they will be encouraged to continue onto higher education. By understanding and adapting to their different needs we are seeing improved academic performance from our children.
Urban slums are breeding grounds for serious social issues like child labour, malnutrition, child marriages, addiction, HIV-AIDS and human trafficking for sexual exploitation. The children living in our city slums are often exposed to domestic violence, peer pressure and violent community brawls and often lack the attention of parents who are burdened with their own struggles for survival and rely on their child’s labour to supplement the family income.
Our Balbhavans are unique models of social change for children living in seven of Ahmednagar’s slums and another in Pune. Based in community hubs our staff are positioned to get to the heart of the issues and provide solutions. They conduct regular surveys identifying issues such as children missing school and work with them and their families to encourage them to get the education that will be key in breaking the cycle of poverty.
Playgroups, after school tuition for older children, health check-up camps, self-help groups, education on the consequences of addictions and child marriage, and sports and cultural activities all help build communal harmony, health, hygiene and educational attainment.
Over 700 children are currently attending our extra-curricular classes and to date over 20,000 slum-dwellers have enjoyed access to our other support services.
Case study
IT Center
Less than 1% of rural households in India own a home computer with internet access. With IT skills being a growing and necessary requirement for government and other professions, our IT Center allows those without a computer the facilities and training courses that will enable them to apply for these skilled jobs. We have been providing subsidised and free computer education to young people from red light districts, slums and rural areas, women in our rescue shelter and people from other lower socio-economic backgrounds since 2009 and many of our graduates are now successfully employed.
​Our classes cater to all levels, from the basics of word processing and creating an email account to more specialised courses in photoshop and computer aided design. Students can also undertake the state certificate in IT which qualifies them to apply for well-paid and secure government positions.
REHABILITATION PROJECTS are a necessary step for our beneficiaries, many of whom have survived incredibly dangerous situations that have caused untold physical and psychological harm. The resilience of the human spirit is remarkable, inspiring us to tackle the social issues that create and perpetuate cycles of harm and pioneer strong social change.
When AIDS first hit in the 1980s we offered ‘death with dignity’ as people fell in the dust.  Now, we are proud to promote ‘life with dignity’, treating all of our beneficiaries with respect and without judgement. While our core mission is to support those rescued from the sex industry or with HIV related needs, we have extended our services to other marginalized and vulnerable groups, who left unaided could fall into these target groups.
​​Rehab Center
The children of commercial sex workers living in red lights areas are often denied a childhood as they are exposed to their mother’s profession and associated addictions, violence and child labour. While girls are groomed in the business, boys often become pimps.
Our flagship project provides foster care to 250 children of sex workers, minors rescued from the sex trade and children orphaned by and/or living with HIV. Unfortunately, many of our children arrive in poor health due to poor nutrition and lack of understanding of how to administer ART effectively. Our ‘Home of Love’ offers shelter, education and vocational training as well as an on-site school and HIV Hospital with free and closely monitored ART. It is also home to our long-term women’s shelter and head office.
Our children live happy, active and healthy lives, attending school and evening revision classes and taking part in extra-curricular sports, cultural programmes and recreational activities. They are able to access counselling and play their part in a democratic child parliament that allows them to raise any issues and play an active role in managing their home environment.
Despite the fact that for many of our children we provide the only family they have ever known, we are only licenced by the government to look after them until they reach age 18 when they are considered to be adults. While we aim to place as many as possible in college, back with their relatives or in suitable employment with accommodation provided, for many this is not an option.
Our GKN Center, a few kilometres from our Rehab Center, provides short-term dormitory accommodation and food for over 18s who have secured employment in local industries. Live in staff provide support and pastoral support as the youngsters learn how to become independent adults.
Encouraging sex workers to leave a profession where they earn quick money and have developed addictions to alcohol and tobacco is difficult. Despite the challenges their profession brings and the social stigma attached to it in many cases they cannot see an alternative. People living with HIV also face prejudice and their ART medication weakens them, making holding down a job and providing for their families extremely difficult.
Our Himmatgram or ‘Hamlet of Courage’ stands in 25 acres of arable land on the outskirts of Ahmednagar, complete with its own poly tunnel, well and reservoir. This biofarm has become a community for former sex workers and HIV+ beneficiaries ready to make a new life for themselves and their families. Here they learn how to become self-sufficient in a rural setting, gaining skills in organic farming, crop rotation, irrigation and dairy farming.
Our live-in project manager ensures they receive all the support they need to farm their own produce with the excess going to supply our Rehab Center. He also counsels them through their transition to rural life, medical treatment and respite care – the farm has become their family home.
Over 100,000 children are reported missing every year in India with 45% remaining untraced. Abductions and kidnappings by family and non-family members, child marriages, runaway, trafficked and lost children are among many more cases not even reported.
​We were the first toll free telephone line and listening service for children to call in India and are still recognised as the number 1 best managed service in the country’s national network of 499 Childlines. ​​Over 300 calls are received from our district every day, from children themselves or concerned adults who consider a child to be at risk.
Our team responds swiftly to investigate every call, working with local emergency services to rescue any child in danger. We are unique in also conducting day and night patrols of transport hubs, buses and trains passing through our district, temples and other areas where runaways or abducted children and abandoned babies end up. Our extensive network of volunteers also plays an essential role in reporting those in vulnerable situations and helping provide vital outreach work auditing health and education facilities in slum areas and raising awareness of the 1098 number.
​We have taken on nearly 9,000 cases since 2003, including a landmark case which exposed 20 high profile figures as paedophiles: all were prosecuted and all received double life sentences.
Adoption Center
It’s unknown exactly how many babies are abandoned each year in India but it is known that over 90% of them are girls. Babies are abandoned for many reasons: victims of rape or unmarried mothers fearing recriminations, being unable to financially support a child or simply not wanting another girl in the family.
Many babies are left at our center, but our Childline team and volunteers also bring us babies found abandoned in public places, sadly sometimes they are found too late. Many of the infants who survive are very fragile and/or premature and require hospitalisation and intensive care. Fortunately, most survive and we start the process of searching for their family and if found counsel them on the next steps. Our adoption process finds loving families for those unwanted and we’re with them every step of the way ensuring a safe and smooth transition to their new home.
​Since we opened our doors in 2004 we have successfully rescued and saved the lives of over 500 babies, adopting them under a government approved and accredited process. We have also played a key role consulting on the government’s proposed new adoption guidelines.
Womens’ refuge
​According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau a crime against women is recorded every three minutes, two women are raped every 60 minutes and a young married woman is found beaten to death, burnt or driven to suicide every six hours.
Violence against women includes foeticide, infanticide, medical neglect, child marriages, bride burning, sexual abuse, forced marriage, rape, prostitution and sexual harassment at home and the work places and their abusers include in laws as well as partners.
The first free telephone helpline in India for Female Sex Workers (FSW) is now open to all women and our short and long stay safe houses provide legal aid, refuge and alternatives to those experiencing harassment, discrimination and domestic violence. Telephone counselling offers legal advice and support, our short-stay home gives women medical care, shelter, counselling and guidance to deal with the immediate issues and we also provide long-stay alternatives, including vocational training and education, for those unable to return home.
​In five years, we have provided safe haven to over 1,000 women in Ahmednagar and have recently opened another shelter in Pune.
AWARENESS PROJECTS are pivotal in raising the plight of our beneficiaries, challenging social stigmas, raising funds, recruiting staff and volunteers, and holding government and judiciary to higher standards. In addition to our regular grassroots outreach we have hosted a number of awareness raising campaigns, and established a network of advocates and partners around the globe. 
Our campaigns have raised awareness for women’s education, violence against women, human trafficking, and HIV and AIDS. We are currently challenging the recent changes in adoption law (CARA) which has drastically relaxed the background checks of prospective adoptive parents, putting children at risk of trafficking and abuse.  
Yuva Nirman
The youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow and young Indians have an increasing social conscience that we want to encourage and support.
Twice a year we welcome the next generation of social workers and activists to attend a three-day conference to learn more about our work and discuss social issues. High profile guest speakers, such as Anna Hazare, inspire and debate their work with attendees covering subjects as diverse as human rights law, violence against women, child protection and the power of social media. The programmes not only raise important issues in our wider community, they also encourage social work as a subject and as a vocation.
​These are complemented by one-off activities such as environmental clean ups, rallies and aid work following natural disasters. In 2015, a small team of our youth volunteers were among the first on the scenes distributing relief, clothing and blankets to victims of the Chennai floods. 
Through this programme we have already engaged with over 5,000 youths, some of whom are have gone up to set up their own projects supporting our beneficiaries.
Radio Nagar
In rural India, radio remains the most popular media directly reaching out to our target communities. Radio Nagar is the first community radio station in Ahmednagar, broadcasting in our local Marathi language 24/7. Through entertaining features on local and topical issues and popular Marathi and Hindi music, we reach and serve the people of Ahmednagar giving them a community focused forum.
Broadcasts focus on and raise awareness of our work and wider social issues, allowing us to promote our helplines and services as well as debating issues affecting our listeners. Guest interviews, talk shows and phone-ins, events coverage and shows hosted around our campaigns raise our profile and showcase local talent. Youth-led programmes build greater social awareness within their own peer groups, building on our ​400,000 listeners within a 25km radius.
Earth Studio
Our on-site vocational training center provides a creative and rehabilitative space for our beneficiaries to learn and build upon their artistic and commercial skills. Bringing out their creativity through art and taking part in group work also provides a sense of belonging and something to occupy their minds. The space in our Rehab Center is one of the most relaxing places on campus, surrounded with beautiful and colourful Ganeshas, jewellery, bags, block printing clothing and clay work.
While the therapeutic benefits of making the items pays dividends, our beneficiaries works are also available for sale providing them a small income and the experience in managing budgets, production and marketing.
Case study
Smile project
It’s reported that Indian girls typically miss around 20% of the school year due to menstruation and many women remain housebound during their monthly cycle. It’s proven that access to low cost, locally appropriate sanitary products improve women’s health, nutrition, wellbeing, school attendance bringing long-term health, social and economic benefits.
Our small Smile manufacturing plant produces maternity and regular sanitary pads for our own beneficiaries with the surplus available to be sold to local markets. The hygienic production facility in our Rehab Center uses locally-sourced materials and is run by a project manager who supervises staff made up of our older girls and residents of our women’s shelter. Being able to produce these products ourselves saves considerably on the expense of purchasing them and the income the workers receive is helping them to become financially independent.
Agricultural Training Center
Covering a largely rural district, many of our beneficiaries come from farming communities and have been forced to seek our support due to the impact of drought or economic migration. Therefore, we have partnered with Syngenta Foundation India (SFI), which works to develop Indian agriculture and the welfare of farmers, with an Agricultural Training Center providing sustainable agricultural employment for young people.
The center delivers employability-orientated training for farming technicians through a 45-day residential Agriculture Technology Assistant (ATA) course. Students will learn how to apply the rapidly emerging technological developments that are helping to increase productivity in agricultural and related fields. Located adjacent to our bio-farm, class-based learning is complemented with practical sessions in the field. Backed by the Government of India, the aim is to create a new generation of agri-entrepreneurs and agriculture technology assistants with the functional knowledge and skills to apply agricultural technology in rural farming communities.
What are the main difficulties that people with affected by AIDS have to face in India?
There is still a huge stigma attached to HIV/AIDS in India which manifests itself in many ways. Despite the vast number of people living with the condition, there is still a lack of education and awareness about it. People living with HIV/AIDS (PLHA) are still outcast from their families and communities, we have many stories of women and children seeking refuge with us because their families and employers have abandoned and refused to support them.
We also admit many to our hospital in critical health, not because they don’t have access to the life-saving ART medication (it is provided by the government) but because they or their families don’t know how to administer it properly and they have succumbed to opportunist infections as a result. This stigma also applies in hospitals and clinics where PLHA are either refused or given substandard treatment through fear of infection and ignorance of the facts surrounding the condition.
In a country where marriage plays a huge role PLHA face difficulties in finding partners which is why we arrange an annual matchmaking event for them, helping them to find partners also living with HIV/AIDS. To date we have matched 38 couples.
Infection continues to rise because women cannot refuse sex with their husbands who may be having sex with other partners of prostitutes, they also cannot ask them to wear condoms.
In what ways do do raise awareness about health issues and how civil society has been responsive so far?
We provide free condoms to all of our sex workers and have an extensive outreach programme to help educate all levels on society on the realities of HIV/AIDS and to bust the myths surrounding it. This is conducted by our field workers and peer educators.
Our annual AIDS week activities engage with local educational institutions through poster competitions and talks to young people and we always secure a lot of press coverage.
We work in villages where education on health is more limited conducting health camps and awareness raising activities.
Our Himmatgram and vocational training education offers alternatives to sex workers at high risk of infections.
Our radio station, Radio Nagar broadcasts within a range of 25km reaching an audience of 400,000 listeners. Their regular programming includes many interviews, discussion and myth busting around health issues and promotes our activities, events and broader work. We also work with local newspapers and television companies to promote our work which regularly features in their publications and broadcasts. Our youth camps twice yearly also cover health issues in their programmes.
Our Childline and Snehadhar (women’s shelter) teams have a regular outreach programme working within schools and colleges to spread awareness of various initiatives, including sexual health and HIV/AIDS.
Fortunately, there has been a gradual shift in the mindset of society in regards to PLHA thanks to Indian government support and awareness raising and the work of NGOs. By being more open we have seen a 20% reduction in people stigmatising them in the past three years and instead seeing them as victims rather than untouchables. Government benefits and incentives including free ART medication, the Sanjay Gandhi Nirardar Yojna scheme which pays PLHA Rs750 monthly, housing schemes and 50% discounts on public transport means more people are accessing support and the public are becoming more aware of and sympathetic to the condition.
Do you cooperate with local authorities and institutions? If yes, how?


We work with several government agencies and organisations including NGOs. We work with high risk and other groups including medical officers, counsellors, other relevant professional and project staff and key influencers, hosting focus group discussions, counselling, 1-2-1s and seminars about health issues. We offer free healthcare, shelter, counselling, moral support, support networks and information for those infected. We also establish and run advocacy groups with legal advisors, the police, local leaders, supporters, donors, medical officer, government officers and women’s groups. Our work with sex workers is supported by the Maharashtra State AIDS Control Society (MSACS) and our project was recognised with an award for our outstanding work in HIV/AIDS education and prevention on World AIDS Day 2016.