India: Sex worker-run restaurant fights stigma and discrimination in Mysore

December 1, 2009


Nestled among the winding back streets behind the Maharajah’s grand palace in Mysore, Hotel Ashodaya, looks as any other eatery in India's southern state of 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 ostracized sections of society: the male, female, and transgender sex workers of this historic city, many of whom are living with HIV.

For many among the sex worker community, it is also a beacon of hope. Opened barely a year ago with help from a World Bank Development Marketplace grant, the restaurant has boosted the self-esteem of those at the very margins of acceptability.

People from all walks of life flock to the eatery, where sex workers serve lunch 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. Says Prashant Kumar, an official of HSBC Bank, who comes here to eat regularly, “For me it’s the quality and taste of the food that matters. I also come here to show my support for the good work the restaurant is doing.”

His statement indicates the gradual acceptance the restaurant has managed to earn as it chips away at one of the most deeply-held prejudices of this conservative society. For Bhagya, a sex worker, it is particularly thrilling that people now address her politely, especially as all she has known is a life of scorn, hatred, and abuse.

Lives of violence and shame

It was not always so. When, in 2004, the University of Manitoba under a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, started an HIV prevention program in Mysore, sex workers faced a life of brutal violence and discrimination. The police humiliated them, hurled foul language at them, beat and jailed them and demanded free sex. Doctors and nurses refused to treat them, while shopkeepers hounded them off the streets. Local rowdies attacked them, leaving many with broken bones. Shunned and alone, their self-esteem at rock-bottom, many were driven to drink.


Outside the Ashodaya Samithi's premises

Said Dr. Sushena Reza Paul, from the Community Health Sciences Center of the University of Manitoba, who has overseen the program since its inception, “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.”

"This was both a challenge and an opportunity," she adds. "Challenge: because HIV prevalence could already be high and the setting was street-based sex-work, 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.”

" 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. "

Mariam Claeson

Regional coordinator for HIV/AIDS in South Asia, World Bank

The strength of the group

Banding together was key. The group set up a community kitchen where members could eat cheaply, and hired a room where women, who came to the city every morning from nearby villages to ply their trade, could rest in the afternoons.

Dr. Reza Paul and her team introduced them to condoms (the sex workers hadn’t heard about condoms till then), helped provide counseling and health services to treat Sexually Transmitted Infections and took members to the government-run Karnataka State AIDS Society to ask for Integrated Counseling and Testing Centers (ICTC) and Anti Retroviral Therapy (ART) centers.

A rapid response team was formed to come to the assistance of any sex worker in trouble – at a hospital, a police station, or on the street - within 30 minutes. When six female sex workers were arrested, the team convinced the police to release them, as this would only force sex work ‘underground’, making HIV control more difficult.

“We saw the difference that Ashodaya could make,” said an enthusiastic Nagendra Prasad, a male sex worker. “It completely changed the way we looked at our lives.”

Today, the Karnataka State AIDS Prevention and Control Society runs an ICTC center at the Ashodaya clinic; the clinic has also been recognized as a DOTS center for treating tuberculosis. Ashodaya has also placed volunteers - all HIV positive sex workers - in each government-run medical facility to assist their members who come there. This has made a palpable difference to the attitudes of the medical staff, encouraging sex workers to use these services.

Changing people's perceptions

Changing others’ perceptions of them has taken longer, though. Nevertheless, having worked the streets for years picking up clients with scarcely a glance, the sex workers have become the ultimate survivors. They regularly visited police stations to sensitize them about their lives. With unerring savvy, they even managed to ensure that their restaurant was inaugurated by none other than the Police Commissioner himself, the seniormost police official in the city. “Now, the attitude of the police towards us is changing,” said Rathnamma, a sex worker. “Violence and harassment have come down dramatically. But our work is far from over. We still have a long way to go.”


Sex workers relax at the Ashodaya Samithi's premises

Shanta Raj, a writer in the investigations department at the city’s Lakshmipuram Police Station who visits the restaurant often, testifies to the police force’s gradually changing attitude. “Now that the sex workers are organized, they understand their responsibilities. They also feel less ashamed of themselves, don’t drink as much, and so we don’t need to arrest them that often.”

Coming together as a group has also made it easier to spread awareness about HIV. Condom use has risen from 13% in 2004 to 80% now. And 300 registered HIV positive sex workers are now receiving ART. Moreover, Ashodaya has become a rallying point for all HIV positive people, even those who aren’t vendors of commercial sex.

Working for the welfare of others

Having suffered inordinate pain themselves, the sex workers display an acute sensitivity to the suffering 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. Recently, they also donated fifty thousand rupees towards the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund after the devastating floods in Karnataka state.

The group also stands resolutely against forcing women into the trade against their will and the trafficking of children. Contrary to popular perception, and perhaps to dispel it, they routinely rescue lost children and deposit them at police stations, especially during the annual Dussehra celebrations when large numbers of tourists throng the city.

Tackling stigma and discrimination head-on

“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." said Mariam Claeson, the World Bank’s regional coordinator for HIV/AIDS in South Asia

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.