Sex workers in Kolkata’s Watgunj area are shifting to alternative livelihoods after undergoing culinary training from professional chefs

She was all of 21 when her husband dumped her and her brother-in-law sold her to a pimp in the red light area of Watgunj in south Kolkata. Forcefully pushed into the sex trade, battered and bruised for almost 13 years, Piyu, now aged 34, is expecting to start life afresh.

Piyu is not alone. Called ‘Sonar Bangla’ — the self empowerment group (SEG) comprising 10 sex workers from the red light area of Watgunj — is set to receive culinary skills from the chefs of the premium city-based Kenilworth Hotel. Supported by the NGO Apne Aap Women Worldwide, some of the other sex workers from the area are organising themselves into SEGs to explore possibilities of alternative and sustainable livelihood options, including stitching of ladies outfits and making jute and paper bags.

“I was pushed into this trade by my brother-in-law. Initially, I used to earn good money but now that I am growing old, no client prefers me. I do not have any income and my landlord is forcing me to vacate the house. I have four kids aged 12, 11, 10 and five. But they cannot stay with me because of the poor living conditions I am in at present,” Piyu said. She is now pinning her hopes on the cooking lessons for earning a decent living.

Since 2008, the Sonar Banglagroup has been cooking mid-day meals for some schools in the locality. The women have also taken orders from some factories and offices in the nearby areas, said Anupam Das, state coordinator for Apne Aap in West Bengal.

While there was initially a lot of stigma attached to it, over the years things have been improving, he said.

According to Ruchira Gupta, founder and president of Apne Aap, the training support by a premium hotel chain will help the women run their business in a professional way — from standardising their food products, to pricing and marketing them.

“Though we have been cooking for the last few years, the sales are dependent on the kind of orders we get. There are days when we earn Rs. 500-1,000, but there are also days when our hands are empty. We want to get a regular source of income so that we can support our children and eventually move out of this place,” 35-year-old Pratima Mondal said.

Apart from imparting cooking lessons to the sex workers, Kenilworth Hotel will also facilitate setting up of food joints in various parts of the city to help market the food cooked by the women. “We are looking at setting up food joints on trolleys for them. Initially we plan to set up five-six such trolleys in various parts of the city. Each trolley will entail an investment of about Rs. 40,000. This apart, we will also provide working capital support of about Rs. 10,000 to start their venture,” said Raju Bharat, chairman and managing director of the Kenilworth.

Based on the success of the venture, the hotel will look at scaling up the project. “Once we are confident about their management skills and are ensured about the quality and hygiene of food, we might consider branding these food joints. But that will require us to have day-to-day control over operations to ensure quality,” he added.

According to Mr. Das, there are over 1,000 women engaged in sex trade in the red light area of Watgunj and another 10,000-odd in the Sonagachi red light locality of Kolkata. Apne Aap has managed to rehabilitate 350-400 odd women and girls in both these areas put together either by linking them to schools, helping them to earn alternative livelihood or by facilitating entitlement of government subsidies and low-cost housing, he said.

Countrywide, nearly 15,000 women and girls have been linked to alternative livelihoods, Ms. Gupta said. “Some women have started tea shops and small grocery stores, while others have got jobs as gas station attendants or as security guards in Westside,” she added.

CORRECTION

The photo exhibition 'Parsis' covered by us on September 16, 2013 was opened at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi and not India Habitat Centre, which we have inadvertently mentioned.