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Sex workers run restaurant in Mysore

A news story by Team Mangalorean Bangalore featured on mangalorean.com on the 18 February 2010. The story outlines how sex workers have utilised a World Bank grant to start their own restaurant in Mysore. The purpose of the restaurant is to challenge stigma and discrimination against sex workers it has also provided income generation opportunities for older sex workers. Profits from the Ashodaya restaurant fund a hospice for those terminally ill with AIDS. And, when unclaimed bodies are found in the city, it is this group that pays for the last rites – work that few others would be willing to do. 

Sex workers run restaurant in Mysore By Team Mangalorean Bangalore

BANGALORE, February 17, 2010: Rehabilitated sex workers in Mysore have given up the “oldest profession” and started a restaurant for a living. Mobilising themselves under Ashodaya Samithi, a NGO, sex workers, particularly the aging ones, opened a hotel to sell meals and earn a living. Rehabilitated sex workers running a community kitchen catering to the food requirements of visitors to all sections of society and their hotel hit the headlines and became a cover page story in the latest World Bank India newsletter.

“Nestled among the winding backstreets behind the Maharaja’s grand palace in Mysore, Hotel Ashodaya looks like any other eatery in Karnataka. But this is no ordinary restaurant. Instead, it is a bold and unusual effort to dispel the scorn and discrimination heaped upon one of the most ostracised sections of society: the male, female, and transgender sex workers of this historic city, many of whom are living with HIV,” said the cover page story titled “Sex-worker run restaurant fights stigma and discrimination in Mysore.”

The proposal to start the restaurant gathered steam after Ashodaya Samiti or Dawn of Hope bagged a Rs. 16-lakh World Bank grant for an innovative, small-scale business proposal that seeks to fight the social stigma and discrimination attached to former sex workers.

The restaurant has boosted the self-esteem of those at the very margins of acceptability. The hotel, which has daily turnover of Rs. 4000, is run by a 12-member workforce, Fathima Mary, an associate member of the Ashodaya Samiti and project officer Disha, a NGO, said.

“The people from all walks of life flock to the eatery, where rehabilitated sex workers serve lunchtime ‘thalis’ and strong south Indian coffee. Slick bankers, tourists, and policemen too – once the dreaded adversaries of the sex worker community – form part of the restaurant’s upmarket clientele,” she said.

“Since the hotel is located near educational institutions and the city corporation office, we decided to offer catering services.” The employees would also be given training on the preparation of north Indian food to attract a wider audience, she says.

“Sex work was vibrant in Mysore, an important tourist hub. Female, male and transgender sex workers operated from the same ‘hotspots’. Condom availability was negligible and violence and harassment were rampant. Yet, there was no HIV prevention program on the ground. An explosive epidemic was just waiting to happen,” says Dr. Sushena Reza Paul, from the Community Health Sciences Center of the University of Manitoba, who has overseen the program since its inception.

“This was both a challenge and an opportunity,” she adds. “Challenge, because HIV prevalence could already be high and the setting was street-based sexwork, where experience in India was very little. Opportunity, because the environment of sex work had not been touched as yet and the population was very visible.”

A new beginning

When the sex workers heard that “outsiders” had come to work for them, they were skeptical. “We couldn’t believe that others were willing to help us when our own families had shunned and disowned us,” said Raghu, a male sex worker.

Trust was built over time. It was only after a sex worker from Kolkata’s well-known Sonagachi red light district came to talk to them, and 130 Mysore sex workers went to see that highly successful group, that they were convinced to form a group of their own. Several community meetings were held over the next six months and finally, in December 2005, a democratically elected board was constituted — and the Ashodaya Samithi, or Dawn of Hope, was born.

Coming together for the first time with others like them was an experience many will never forget. Tears of release flowed unrestrainedly as long-suppressed emotions resurfaced and old hurts were recalled. “I could understand their pain and feet their hurt,” said Bhagya, now Ashodaya’s elected secretary, of that cathartic experience. “And, for the first time I realized I was not alone.”

For the welfare of others

Profits from the Ashodaya restaurant fund a hospice for those terminally ill with AIDS. And, when unclaimed bodies are found in the city, it is this group that pays for the last rites – work that few others would be willing to do. 

The Samithi donated money towards the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund after the devastating floods in the State. “The restaurant has provided an opportunity to sex workers who wish to give up their profession,” says Fathima.

The Ashodaya Samithi, which is engaged in creating awareness about HIV among sex workers, also holds regular clinics in the city and different parts of Mysore and Mandya districts for the benefit of sex workers

Mariam Claeson, the World Bank’s Regional Coordinator for HIV/AIDS in South Asia says “Where the sex worker community is engaged and empowered, behavioral and social changes happen, and stigma, discrimination and violence are tackled up front. Barriers to consistent condom use and HIV prevention are also reduced. The Ashodaya Samithi is collaborating with development partners to serve as a learning site on HIV and Sex Work. “

Clearly, the daring little Hotel Ashodaya is a major step forward in tackling the stigma and discrimination that HIV positive people face. It is also providing the sex workers of Mysore the dignity, respect, and acceptance they have craved for so long.


Economics and Development