Mysore: Akram Pasha picks up the microphone in a swanky conference room at Ashodaya Academy in Mysore to address sex workers in a peer group training session. The 30 people in the room take notes and ask questions with a diligence most college professors would envy.
What’s making the difference at the academy is that Pasha, 37, infected with HIV and known as Karishma during his days as a male sex worker, can pepper his training sessions with personal stories. He also knows most of the people in the room personally. The result is an instant connect.
Life lessons: Akram Pasha (right) is one of the trainers at the Ashodaya Academy in Mysore. Pasha, a former sex worker, says he uses personal stories to help educate female, transgender and male sex workers in preventive healthcare, legal literacy and skill-building for HIV prevention. Hemant Mishra / Mint
Pasha, along with other sex workers in Mysore, formed Ashodaya Samithi, a community organization, in 2006 to propel female, transgender and male sex workers in the direction of preventive health education, legal literacy and skill-building for HIV prevention.
“We talk about issues in the trade, infections and health freely. Since we belong to the same community, there isn’t any hesitation,” says Pasha.
That was the strategy Ashodaya Samithi employed to mobilize at least 1,900 sex workers in Mysore alone. That helped it become a learning site for non-profit groups across India and, finally, in May, it formed Ashodaya Academy after UNAIDS approached them to be its Asia-Pacific regional learning site.
Ashodaya has so far helped and trained community advocacy groups from nine states in India to replicate its method of capacity building.
In its first session in September, the academy, which draws its faculty from sex workers as well as experts in HIV/AIDS intervention programmes, trained a delegation from five countries—Myanmar, Nepal, Bangladesh, India and Cambodia. The trainees included a heterogeneous group of national policymakers and non-profit groups.
“We tailor our programmes depending on the visiting groups,” says Pratima, a sex worker and one of the 27 faculty members at the academy. “For example, people in the trade are concerned about how to negotiate with their clients about the use of a condom; policymakers are keen on methods of capacity building. We address both issues in different sessions,” she says.
The training sessions at the academy are far from preachy. “We begin by telling them our own stories, enact situations to cross the language barrier and then ask them to participate,” says Pasha. They also use PowerPoint presentations in English and ask participants to come with translators to make sure the communication is complete.
“Often, there are two levels of translation. Hindi/Kannada to English and then English to the local language, but we try to save some time by using diagrams,” he adds.
Over the past three years, Ashodaya has also run a drop-in centre where sex workers come to rest during lean hours. It also runs a clinic that offers free tests and treatment and a hotel managed by people who have retired from the trade.
“Ashodaya is an organization that is run by the sex workers for the sex workers,” says Sushena Reza Paul, adviser to Ashodaya, who first met Pasha in 2003 at a Mysore bus stand. Paul convinced Pasha to participate in an intervention programme initiated by the University of Manitoba, Canada, to address the risk of HIV transmission among sex workers. The lessons from this intervention eventually led to the creation of the academy.