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Indian restaurant creates social space, helps sex workers fight stigma

Page history last edited by Rosemary 11 years ago

Fighting stigma, culinary style

by Savitha Babu

Reprinted with permission from The Alternative


An eatery in Mysore is helping sex workers find a space in the mainstream.

Close to Dalavayi school in Mysore is a small vegetarian eatery. It serves your standard idli-dosa fare in the mornings and thalis at meal times.

Lunch on the day we visited consisted of puris, mixed vegetable sabzi, rice, rasam, and sambhar. Papad and paysam came along of course. Steel containers with salt and sugar were placed on the table, for those who needed to adjust tastes. A board proclaimed self service. On purchasing coupons for Rs. 25, we were however told that we would be served at the table. Good food. Good service. Good prices.

Sounds like your regular office lunch darshini? It is. Just that Hotel Ashodaya is run by a group of sex workers.

Inaugurated formally on December 1, 2008, it has provided much visibility to the work done by Ashodaya Samithi, an organization of sex workers. At the outset, it was made amply clear that this is not a rehabilitation project - all the Ashodaya representatives who spoke to us insisted that this be clarified. The aim of the Samithi is simply to help sex workers find a space for themselves in the mainstream.

Ms. Fathima Mary from the organization said, “Ashodaya has helped our people find avenues to express their talents. But beyond working hours they engage in their personal work. Through Ashodaya, sex workers are creating a social space for themselves”. The Samithi is committed to reducing the stigma against sex workers, and improving their lives.


Help from Police Commissioner, World Bank

The decision to start the restaurant came through a community kitchen that earlier catered to the needs of the community. When a local hotel nearby was about to close, the Samithi decided to take over. A formal inauguration on World AIDS day by the police commissioner helped garner legitimacy. Winning a World Bank grant helped gain visibility.

Initially, there were adverse reactions. Ms. Mary said a local newspaper spoke derogatorily of the restaurant, implying that sex trade occurred within Ashodaya. “We invited the editor of that paper to come and see our work for himself. The paper then carried an apology and an article on the good work being done”, she said. Today, the hotel is frequented by office-goers, tourists, and police officials. They also cater to government and corporate offices.

Nagarathna, a sex worker and Secretary of Ashraya, the wing that works with HIV+ sex workers, said the project has helped them gain confidence as a community, and interact with people from all strata of society. “Our exposure was limited to our circles. If today we can interact with you confidently, the reason is Ashodaya”, she said. Prakash, a male sex worker and Secretary of Adarsha, the wing that works with MSM and transgenders, is the head cook at the restaurant. He says, “I have always been interested in cooking. I can cook for a huge number of people with the necessary assistance. Ashodaya has provided me an avenue to express my talent.”

While the hotel is a key initiative of the Samithi, there are many other activities it undertakes. Ashodaya Academy is an organization where sex workers educate others like them on various aspects of safety and identity. The organization also runs clinics where health check ups are provided.


46 women rescued from traffickers

Rathnamma, in charge of the Hassan program, said that an important component of their work is the Self Regulatory Board (SRB). “We are opposed to trafficking and under age sex work. The SRB has officials from the health and police department. Because we are in the field, we come to know of instances of trafficking. We then actively engage in rescue”, she says. So far, the organization has rescued 46 women from different parts of the country and abroad.

Interestingly, the police, once a dreaded enemy, is now a trusted ally. They depend on us to help solve cases. We approach them if we need assistance, said all the sex workers spoken to.

Earlier visits to the police station were marked by rude behavior. We were spoken to in the singular, and sometimes, in vulgar language, comments Ms. Nagarathnamma. Now, we are made to sit comfortably and refreshments are offered. Police officials are happy with the work we are doing, she said.

In case of HIV+ deaths, people hesitate to do last rites for the deceased. We are often called to perform them, said Ms. Nagarathnamma. We also participate in other agitations such as Cauvery revolts, or farmer protests, thus cementing our space in the mainstream, she said.

Prathima, Finance Director at Ashodaya, talked about the three main areas in which the organization has helped sex workers - identity, self confidence and lifestyle. Prakash elaborated on the identity aspect. Earlier, we only knew negative words to identify ourselves. The very term “sex worker” has helped us identify ourselves more confidently, he said. Lifestyle refers to condom usage, regular health check-ups and so on.


Clear demarcations

The demarcation between personal and professional is very clear at Ashodaya. When we recruit anyone from the community, we make it clear that clients cannot be brought anywhere near Ashodaya premises. After office hours, personal work is not interfered with, said Prakash.

As Ms. Mary put it, it’s not possible to rehabilitate all sex workers of Mysore through one restaurant. Nor is that the intent. Most of the workers here depend on sex work for their livelihood and that must be understood, she said.

Non-community members also work in the restaurant and the Samithi. But major decisions are taken by the community.

We finished lunch over a long chat with the office bearers, grateful to these people for having shared their lives without any inhibitions whatsoever. As we concluded, they asked us: “what do you think of our work”. Great work, I said. What did you think of us, added Prakash. To which Bhagyalakshmi, State Secretary of the Samithi, quipped: “they had thought we would be really weird. They are in a state of shock that we speak like normal people.”

“No,” I said, smiling. I was just stunned at the lack of cynicism despite their difficult lives, and the ease with which they shared experiences with strangers. Those of us in the mainstream, I thought, could learn to keep our skepticism at bay at least for a while, seeing these individuals.


This story appeared May 24, 2010 in The Alternative, an online platform that chronicles and supports social development in India. Author Savitha Babu (right) has worked with The Hindu and studied journalism at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. The pictures show (top)   Nagarathna, Rathnamma and Raghu having lunch at the hotel. (Picture by Savitha Suresh Babu); and (bottom) Prakash, the head cook at Hotel Ashodaya (Picture by Swathi Shivanand). We thank The Alternative for permission to use the pictures.

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