Defying stigma, holding hope, HIV positive sex workers run eatery

December 14th, 2008 - 1:57 pm ICT by IANS  

Mysore, Dec 14 (IANS) Ashodaya seems like any other Karnataka restaurant with its menu of idlis, vadas and dosas, but it is different. From cooking to serving to managing, everything is done by HIV positive male, female and transgender sex workers.This small eatery in Mysore, about 140 km from Bangalore, is competely managed by 12 HIV positive sex workers and has been attracting a steady stream of customers since October when it began. It was, however, formally inaugurated on Dec 1 - World AIDS Day.

“We’re doing decent business. We have patrons from all walks of life. On an average, we earn around Rs.3,000 daily. Around 40-50 people enjoy the food in our restaurant every day,” said a female sex worker who works as a cook in the eatery and does not wish to be named.

Said Prakash, a waiter: “Now I am a proud man and enjoying my work in the restaurant. Hopefully, my newfound work will bring new meaning to my life.”

The restaurant was set up at a cost of Rs.450,000 from funds given by the World Bank to Ashodaya Samiti, which was formed in December 2005 by the NGO Disha. Today the samiti has over 1,500 members.

“The restaurant is part of our work to erase the stigma attached to sex workers and HIV/AIDS-infected people,” said S.V. Sreeram, deputy director of Disha.

The profit from Ashodaya, which means providing hope, will be used to help HIV-infected people in Mysore and neighbouring Mandya district. The eatery, which currently serves only south Indian dishes, plans to introduce chaat, pav bhaji and popular Chinese dishes in the coming days to attract more customers.

“We’re getting a steady flow of customers. This is an indication that society is ready to accept people with AIDS in the mainstream. I hope the restaurant brings more changes in society,” smiled Sreeram.

Ashodaya Samiti is also training HIV positive sex workers to become campaigners to spread awareness about the disease.

Two such campaigners are Rajshekhar, 30, and Sashikala, 35, who now help AIDS patients coming for treatment to the Karnataka government-run Krishna Rajendra hospital in Mysore.

Working as volunteers at the anti-retroviral therapy (ART) centre at the hospital, both of them, within three months of their work, have literally become bridges between the patients and care givers.

Like Rajshekhar and Sashikala, 18 other volunteers have been helping people living with HIV in Mysore and Mandya districts access medical benefits without any discrimination and difficulties.

The 20 volunteers are members of Ashodaya Samiti.

“We have been training sex workers, be it female, male or transgender, to become volunteers. They can reach out to their community and spread awareness about AIDS and medical care available to tackle the disease,” said Sushena Reza Paul, project director of Disha.

For its work in creating awareness about AIDS in Mysore and Mandya districts, Disha received Rs.1.6 million from the World Bank in September.

“With this fund, Ashodaya is putting up volunteers in eight hospitals of the two districts that are helping AIDS patients access health benefits without any discrimination,” added Sushena.

In the last three months, around 6,000 AIDS patients received treatment in the eight hospitals because of Ashodaya’s volunteers, she said.

“The volunteers are doing an excellent job. They are helping poor, illiterate and vulnerable people access medical benefits,” said Madhusudhan M.S., a counsellor at the ART centre of K.R. Hospital.

The main work of the volunteers is to assist patients who come to the ART centre, Out Patient Department (OPD) and Integrated Counselling and Testing Centre (ICTC) units. The volunteers help patients to access services, escort them for their various tests and provide informal, one-to-one counselling.

According to an estimate of the Karnataka State AIDS Prevention Society (KSAPS), the state has 85,000 sex workers. The state has 25,000 HIV infected people and 33,000 suffering from AIDS, KSAPS says.

An estimated 2.5 million people in India, aged between 15 and 49, are feared to be living with HIV and AIDS.

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