“Empathy and humility will save lives”

Posted On
Monday, March 19, 2018


Angela Chaudhuri

Director, Swasti Health Catalyst

“Women in sex work are smarter than we are, and to work with them and for their welfare, we must earn their trust with honesty, empathy, patience, and a non-judgmental attitude.” Hareesh

I’ve known Hareesh for almost a decade now, unassuming by nature but dig a little deeper, you find an immense reserve of grit, determination, and perseverance. It’s not a mean feat managing an organisation responsible for 13,000 vulnerable women in Bangalore, so I decided to find out what makes Hareesh tick.

Coming from a family of agriculturists in Bokkahalli village in Karnataka, Hareesh began his career in the development sector with capacity building, first as a volunteer in Mysore and then through building up a self help group in Chamarajanagar. Moving on from there he had brief but valuable stints with the esteemed organisations like Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement, Karnataka State AIDS Prevention Society and Karnataka Health Promotion Trust (KHPT). And although he had a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Resource management and a Masters in Social Work, his calling came from the field.

“ Day in and day out I was exposed to the risks faced by vulnerable women and women in crises” says Hareesh, speaking of his time in Mysore, a popular tourist destination and hub of sex work. “This motivated me to invest my efforts for their well-being”.

As Zonal Manager in 2007, Hareesh was part of Swasti’s flagship initiative called Pragati. After a short six months, he was given additional charge of the PLHIV (People Living with HIV ) portfolio, taking up Swathi Spoorthi (a project caring for over 500 people living with HIV). He even won a World Bank Development Marketplace award for Baduku ( a project focused on Beating Stigma and Discrimination against people living with HIV). Over the years, using from his arsenal core community engagement and capacity building skills, Hareesh lent his talent to numerous initiatives and intervention but all towards the welfare of women in crises.

I asked him, what made him tick, and what made it possible for him to whole heartedly put his life’s work towards working with these women who the entire societies shun and in several countries even illegal. He disarms me with a smile, and says,

“I have the most understanding and non-judgmental family, and I AM Determined.”

Hareesh, through Swasti, functions as the Chief Operating Officer of Swathi Mahila Sangha ( a community organisation of women in sex work) and its sister organizations—Swathi Spoorthi, Swathi Jyothi Cooperative, and Swathi Innovation social enterprise, providing health services, financial services and life skills. Hareesh has seen them through from just 10 employees, they to more than 80 full-time staff and 170 part-time staff, mainly comprising women who are sex workers, and professionals including social workers and medical staff.

So you can see why I’m an admirer of Hareesh, he’s come so far from implementing at programme level to heading an entire organisation! From engaging with staff and community leaders, addressing the day’s conflicts and crisis situations, to having criminals and violent folks arrested to addressing violence around loan repayment, and even field visits from the State AIDS Control Society or Cooperatives Department. Each of these crises require such delicate handling and strategy, that I can’t imagine the stress Hareesh goes through and all with a brilliant smile.

Baffled, I asked Hareesh, how he managed not just to keep calm, but to nurture and grow this kind of special organisation, being that attrition is rampant in the development sector. “My wife Seema is my anchor, not only does she understands because she’s from this sector, but she’s taken the conscious decision of leading the household duties giving me the bandwidth to do what I do.” Seema and Hareesh have been married for 9 years, have 2 kids- a 7 year old daughter and a 3 year old son whose first birthday I had the privilege of attending. “ My parents have been very open-minded too, often insisting on listening to stories from his work.

“So Hareesh, what kind of advice can you give to people who are passionate like you,” I asked, ignoring the cliche. Without losing a heart beat, “You must find your passion and be patient.” He continued, “Empathy and humility are cornerstones to social work, the women in sex work are smarter than we are”, he says, “and to work with them we must to earn their trust with honesty, empathy, patience, and a non-judgmental attitude.”

“Besides,” he says, “without these you’ll be burnt out very soon.”

My hat is tipped to Hareesh, a top Catalyst in my books, who has doggedly chased his passion and living it in his own calm nonchalant ,we-will-live-to-see-another-day motto.

May your tribe increase!

More by this Author

Swasti Centre of Excellence for COVID-19 response

The Swasti Center of Excellence (CoE) is a knowledge management and learning platform that connects and collaborates with partners working to bridge the gap between communities and health systems and services, particularly for vulnerable and marginalized women, to combat COVID-19. Vulnerable women, including the poor pregnant women, women garment workers, women in sex work, transgender…

COVID-19 Response on March 22nd, 2020

Updates on our COVID-19 Response on behalf of the Catalyst Group COVID19 Response Command Center by Dr Angela Chaudhuri, Partner, Swasti. Angela, Partner, Swasti was commissioned by the trustees of the Catalyst Group of Institutions, to lead the Response Command Center. Her experience and expertise has been on health systems strengthening with a particular focus primary health care for the indigent and vulnerable communities.

Update: COVID-19 Response on March 11th

Dr Angela Chaudhuri, Partner, Swasti was commissioned by the trustees of the Catalyst Group of Institutions, to lead a COVID19 Response Command Center.

Three Key Questions for Innovators in Public Health

Tech offers new solutions to persistent challenges, but what does it take to make a real impact?