What happens when armed conflict, displacement and poverty meets a stomach growling in hunger? Twenty-six year old Kimnu (name changed) found the answer the hard way. Her parents were killed during the 1997 inter-ethnic armed conflict between the Kuki and Paite communities in Manipur's hills. She and her other two siblings were also separated in the chaos. They landed at different 'refugee' camps.

 •  Write the author
 •  Women
 •  Manipur
 •  Send to a friend
 •  Printer friendly version "Initially, people gave us food and some clothes as aid. But there were so many of us in the camp. How long can they feed us everyday?" Kimnu said. But soon it became apparent that depending on well-wishers with outstretched hands would not work for long. Lacking money, resources and education, even borrowing could not work, for there was no way to repay lenders. And so she turned to the one route that seemed open - selling herself. She began providing sexual favours in return for food and money. She was only 16 years old at that time. Kimnu is like thousands of young women in the state who have been displaced by armed conflict, and have opted to sell sex for money.

Today she is a full time sex worker. "I want my plate of rice. I also want vegetables with it. Who will feed me everyday? Why should I beg everyday? If you were in my position, you too would have done as we did," she says.

Thousands of victims

Others echo her sentiments. "We knew no one, had no food, and had to pay the rent also. We had lost everything. What was there to sell, except my own body?" said 30-year-old Hoinu (name changed), who lost her family in the Naga-Kuki clash in the early 1990s. "They attacked our village, burning the houses and killing people. We didn't even have time to take our belongings. One of my sisters was hit by a bullet in the arm as we were fleeing. Her arm barely escaped amputation," 23-year-old Ningning (name changed) recalls. It was ten years ago that Ningning, then a tender 13-year-old, started servicing the sexual needs of her first 'customer' to get food for herself and her three younger sisters.

Another factor behind the rising numbers of sex workers is forced displacement, caused by large projects in the state.

 •  Women in the line of fire
 •  The silence around sex work

During the last few decades, Manipur has been wrecked by armed conflict that has left thousands killed and rendered thousands of others homeless. In the 1990s alone, various ethnic clashes took place - Meitei-Pangal, Naga-Kuki and Kuki-Paite, apart from the five-decade-long insurgency and counter-insurgency operations. Though the state government and other agencies provided some interim relief to those affected, economic security was rarely considered in rehabilitation packages. As a result, acute poverty linked to armed conflict is a major reason for the growing number of commercial sex workers in Manipur. Drug abuse too is common, further impacting those turning to the world's oldest profession.

Another factor behind the rising numbers of sex workers is forced displacement, caused by large projects in the state. Says Ngai, a counselor working with sex workers in Churachandpur district, "You could say this rampant flesh trade began after the clashes. Before that there were some women in the trade, but the number swelled enormously after the clashes." According to her, many of the women whose families were displaced by the Khuga Dam project have also joined the trade. "There will be even more soon, especially after more displacement caused by the Tipaimukh Dam project," she says ominously.

"After their homes and families are destroyed by armed conflict, many of these girls are displaced and orphaned. All they need is some shelter and food. Local liquor joints wait for such vulnerable girls, and in return for food and shelter introduce them to the flesh trade, sometimes forcibly, sometimes after getting them addicted to liquor or drugs," says M Pramotchand of the Imphal-based Population Health Institute (PHI).

He adds, "In the work available in the state, the competition favours men. As they are physically stronger, they can pull a rickshaw, dig ponds or work at a building site. For women, it is mostly selling vegetables, and in some cases washing bricks at a building site, which brings very little money." PHI has made an assessment of the situation and response of CSWs in 2005 - the only study of its kind in the state.

"Sometimes these women try their hands at small business, sell tea or some such things. But being emotionally vulnerable, they are often duped by prowling men," adds Nganthoi, a counselor with the Meitei Leimarol Sinnai Sang (MLSS) in Imphal. "For a family in which the husband has no earnings or is out of work, and there are three or four kids, even a hand-to-mouth survival becomes difficult," she says. MLSS is one of the NGOs working with sex workers under a Manipur State Aids Control Society (MSACS) project for intervention against HIV/AIDS.

Drugs and secrecy

Forty-nine year old Sanathoi (name changed) is at the age when she should be playing with her grandchildren. Yet she spends her day scouring the streets of Imphal looking for customers. "Not for me, I am too old," she smiled, her yellowed teeth a sharp contrast to her sun-darkened face. Sanathoi tried selling tea and vegetables to feed her four children after her husband's death. Ultimately a friend told her that going to Moreh to buy goods from the flourishing Namphalong bazaar on the Indo-Myanmar border and then selling them in Imphal would be more beneficial. For some time this option indeed brought her some money. But a fellow trader secretly gave her heroin in a cigarette and got her hooked to it. Now, she sells herself to any available male, or in most cases pimps for other younger girls, to feed her daily dose of the pleasure powder.

Sanathoi is one of many girls and women who are in the trade to fund their daily dose of drugs. There are also many others who became dependent on drugs or liquor to be able to sell themselves. What is saddening is that many of these girls are highly educated. Gloria (name changed) has a BA degree, but for her daily dose, she not only sells herself, but also pimps for other girls.

"A recent trend is that some persons with vested interest would go to remote areas of the state and bring these orphaned girls to the urban area like Imphal on the pretext of finding them work as domestic helps or in hotels. However, they will gradually introduce the girls to the trade. The families too are blissful in their ignorance as they receive some 500 or 1000 rupees as their child's salary," Pramotchand adds. As for the girls themselves, very often, after being duped into the trade they don't want to return to their earlier lives, due to the high level of stigma attached to the trade. Moral policing by local clubs, youth and women organisations is high and punishment such as tonsuring and public humiliation is stringent and swift.

This has also lent a degree of secrecy to the work. It is difficult to assess exactly how many girls and women are in this bind. Unlike in other parts of the country, sex work here is not brothel-based; women often go to another part of the state for their work, and return home after a day, a week or even a month. In areas like Moreh on the Indo-Myanmar border, there are also sex workers coming from across the border and operating in the satellite towns. There is no comprehensive assessment by the state government, nor any policy on the issue; both Manipuri society at large as well as policy makers prefer to feign ignorance of the existence of the thriving flesh trade in the state.

An evident fallout is the snowballing HIV/AIDS scenario in the state; the sexual route is proving to be the major reason for the spread of the disease. There are a few NGOs working to combat this. The Manipur State Aids Control Society (MSACS), as part of its overall work against HIV/AIDS, is working in a few distrcits. In most cases, however, women rescued from the flesh trade eventually relapse into it. Says Esther Chinnu, a social worker working with destitute women, including sex workers, "These girls are not happy with the small amount I give them to be a part of the self help group we have established for them. They tell me that if they go and stay with 'friends' for a few days, they can come back with whatever they want - clothes, money, luxury items ..."

Is there any way out for these women? One sex worker, Gloria, asks, "In other places we hear that sex workers are also asserting their rights. Here, who is there for us? In this state every two days someone or the other calls a bandh for their demands. But we are in such trade and condition that we can't come out in the open and call a bandh to demand our rights, or even to ask for a proper home or caring place for our children."

Still, social activists still hold out the hope that things can be turned around. "What we need is proper management by the government towards economic, social, political and educational development so that one doesn't need to sell oneself for food, not donating a specific red light area for these women," says Nganthoi. "We have made the initial assessment. What is needed now is follow-up intervention programmes and providing alternate livelihood," adds Pramotchand.