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Friday, April 15, 2011

Mysore sex workers run and man a restaurant as an attempt to reintegrate themselves with the mainstream

After Irom Sharmila last year, Anna Hazare wins IIPM's 2011 Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize of Rs. 1cr. To be handed over on 9th May

Almost every eating joint in the city claims to have a USP. But before we delve into Mysore-based Hotel Ashodaya's USP, let's talk about the food served here. In the morning, they serve idly, dosa, ricebath and a variety of side dishes for the breakfast. In the afternoon, proper lunch is served. As one enters the hotel, waiters would hand over the menu with a smiling face and a gesture of respect. The food here is delicious, the surroundings clean.

But despite that Ashodaya was not a hit with the locals even after quite a few months of its opening. The reason? Well, the hotel was actually founded and is manned by the city's sex workers. So, many people avoided it.

Hotel Ashodaya was founded by the Ashodaya group, an NGO that works for the welfare of sex workers and transgenders. 'It was in 2008 that we started the hotel to help men and women from our community and even the non-community people who support our work,' informs Prakash, a male sex worker who works for Ashodaya.

In 2004, a core team working for the welfare and safety of sex workers launched the Ashodaya group, to unite them and bring them to the mainstream by brushing aside the social stigma heaped on them. 'Dr Sushena, Dr Sundar Raman, Senthil and Kaveri were in the core team and Ashodaya was their brainchild. In the beginning it was a small group of sex workers with technical support from the non-community people.

As days passed by, sex workers of Mysore city started joining this organisation,' says Akram Pasha, a male sex worker serving as the deputy director of Ashodaya Samithi and coordinator for the hotel project.

It is hardly a five-minute walk from Mysore Palace. The road next to Dalavayi School will take you directly to Ashodaya. 'We provide breakfast and lunch facilities to the customers and by 6 pm, our outlet is closed as the sex workers move on to their usual profession. Sex work is their profession and hotel work is like a side business. At present five sex workers and three non-community workers are working in this hotel,' says Prakash.

'The profit from the restaurant helps the progress and empowerment of sex workers. The income generated here directly goes to our Care Home project,' says Nagarathnamma, a female sex worker. Those care homes are exclusively for the safety and protection of exploited sex workers. 'We have started our 'care homes' in six districts of Karnataka. In the evening, doctors visit our care home and treat men and women who are neglected and uncared for,' explains Shashikala, a sex worker of the group.

Shashikala had no idea about a condom before she joined hands with Ashodaya. 'I didn't know what a condom was and how it could be used... I was ignorant of all those preventive measures. But after entering the Ashodaya group, I learnt the safety measures. Thereafter, I insist on condoms for my clients. If a client does not accept it, he can take a hike,' says Shashikala. Akram Pasha is also one of the trainers at the Ashodaya Academy. 'We use our personal stories to educate the female, transgender and male sex workers in preventive healthcare, legal literacy and skill-building for HIV prevention,' he informs. Ashodaya hotel also provides catering service to several educational institutions, corporations and companies. 'Many of them gave good feedback about our service and food. It's really helping us to improve ourselves and provide more services to our customers,' says Prakash.

Previously, only sex workers used to work in the hotel, but when non-community men came forward to work for the hotel, sex workers were actually surprised. 'That was a progressive move. The restaurant has paved the way for parity and has lessened the gap between sex workers and the public,' observes Rathnamma, a sex worker and a senior member of the group.

'When Ashodaya hotel was opened, locals avoided it as the staff were professional sex workers. But reasonable pricing, good taste, hygienic food and cleanliness perhaps made them rethink,' recalls Rathnamma.

An assistance of Rs 1.5 lakh from the World Bank eventually paved the way for the hotel project in 2008. Since then, it has completely changed the mindset of sex workers. They have started thinking as a part of the mainstream.

The families of some of the sex workers have started accepting them back after the latter found a space for themselves in the mainstream after joining Ashodaya. 'But more Ashodayas are needed for this to happen fully, only one association in Mysore cannot reach all the sex workers,' opines Jinendra, a male sex worker and a member of Ashodaya.

'We do not force men or women here to carry on with sex work. If they are happy about the profession, then it's our duty to make them aware of all the safety measures and to avoid complications. We have managed to check the number of HIV-positive cases in Mysore, which was on the rise, over the years,' says Fathima who works as a technical supporter in Ashodaya.

Ashodaya hotel is a ray of hope for the sex workers but no one wishes to leave the profession. 'This is our profession. We are going in the right path without harming the public or anyone. The society needs to accept it,' is the argument of these sex workers.

'We are happy that even the government is supporting us, especially people like Shobha Karandlaje, the former rural development minister of the state. We don't need anybody's sympathy but acceptance as a part of the society,' concludes Girija, a transgender.

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