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Home > India > Business > Special

Sex workers turn entrepreneurs, get WB grant

Gouri Satya in Chennai/Mysore | May 30, 2008

For sex workers, fighting social stigma and discrimination is a big challenge. Unlike in the olden days where society accepted them as part of the social structure and gave them a respected place, sex workers today are harassed and looked down upon, and more often exploited.

Ashodaya Samithi, an organisation of female, male and transgender sex workers in Karnataka, is addressing the issue of social stigma and discrimination towards HIV+ sex workers and sex workers in general by promoting entrepreneurship among them. Its efforts towards this has given shape to an innovative and sustainable project -- a community kitchen in Mysore.

Around 150 organised sex workers are today selling 'thalis' or meals at Rs 7 each, at their centre. They sell about 150 meals a day.

What began as an experimental proposition has turned into a business model for them. Their joint effort has brought to their organisation, Ashodaya, a World Bank grant as well.

'Development Marketplace' (DM) is a competitive grant programme administered by the World Bank and supported by various partners. It identifies and funds innovative, small-scale development projects with good potential for expansion that can be replicated and which could have development impact.

The sex workers' organisation has won the grant, competing from among 1,000 proposals the World Bank received from seven countries.

The short-listed 75 finalists from among the 1,000 were invited to Mumbai to set up a stall, exhibit and explain their proposal to a team of jurors and convince them on their proposal. A sex worker and Ashodaya secretary Bhagyalakshmi did the promotional work. She convinced the jurors on the innovativeness, replication and sustainability of their project and made Ashodaya qualify to receive the World Bank grant of $40,000 on May 15 in Mumbai from actor and UNICEF envoy Shabana Azmi.

Reducing sex workers' social stigma by undertaking healthcare measures, training speakers and promote positive living, develop business initiative, and document each episode of discrimination and to address them are the grant's aims. Sushena Rezapaul, head of Disha project, which provides technical backing to Ashodaya, told Business Standard, "Ashodaya was planning to expand the community kitchen project to other districts, encouraged by its success.

As these marginalised will become 'kitchen managers', discrimination and stigma will take a backseat.

Ashodaya emerged out of a need among Mysore's sex workers to group themselves into an organisation. These who came for treatment at the Emanuel Hospital Association (EHA), which is running a HIV prevention project in Mysore and Mandya districts, decided to group into Ashodaya organisation.

Besides running the kitchen, Ashodaya, headed by its president Rathnamma, has put up two stalls at the Urban Haath, the handicraft centre in Mysore, where they sell clothes.

They plan to promote a community laundry and cater to IT companies, hospitals and major firms, he said.

Rathnamma acknowledges the increasing awareness towards the inherent capacity of the marginalised and hopes of scaling greater heights in HIV prevention, care and support through their joint effort.

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