The city at dusk

Seram Neken *

"When my husband was brutally killed by the armed people during communal clashes, nothing except my two small daughters and a dilapidated hut was left at the far away abandoned village in Churachandpur district. Amidst the scare and tearful longing for months, we had to starve many a day. As an innocent housewife of 19 years, my option was only to die in the footsteps of my husband. However, I was compelled to live for I had to feed my small kids, the age of the smaller being only 6 months then. My elder daughter, 2 years by that time, helped me a lot in rearing her sister even while I was out to beg food from nearby village. I could not die, even though my fate dictated me to do so. My love for my daughters forced me to live, rather to sell my chastity as a woman. I was ready to do whatever that gave life to my children."

Twenty nine year old Mary (name changed) narrated her ordeal in the most sentimental tone. The sex-worker-turned-housewife who migrated to the heart of Imphal city out of necessity is residing at rent somewhere in Imphal along with her two daughters. Her only dream is to see her siblings complete matriculation and get suitable jobs at any agency so as to survive in this highly materialistic world. She wished her present HIV status would not dash her purpose of living.

Economic necessity, social unrest, communal hatred, irresponsible male behaviour, dearth of earning avenues, increasing immorality among both the male and female folks, lack of recreational room in society, absence of work culture among the males etc. are factors leading to burgeoning commercial sex activity in the Imphal city. Female sex workers are mostly widows and divorced or separated women. Unmarried girls aged between 15 and 25 years are the most demanded while married women in their later 20s and early 30s are the most common. Older sex workers act as guide, recruiters and agents of the new comers.

Although prostitution is globally considered the oldest universal profession, the changing scenario of the phenomenon in the heart of Imphal city and burgeoning number of commercial sex workers have probably threatened the aesthetic social values and civilised character of Manipur society. The infamous social recognition attached to the Manipuri women will lose its historic values, if we let it happen uncontrolled and unchecked.

The civil society mainly male-organisations and the government need to put efforts in checking the magnitude of flesh trade so as to save the aesthetic social character of this beautiful state. Sex trade or flesh trade is a necessary evil in society arising out of multitude of circumstances, it cannot be abolished totally. The only thing we may do is to check and minimise its quantum while keeping it under strict the social control. The civil society has to involve, instead of denying the changing face of the city.

Flesh trade finds its ugly appearance wherever there is human being. The magnitude of the problem determines the social values in man. Most unfortunate trend in Imphal today is the school going adolescent boys joining the queue of clients who mostly are easy-moneyed people. As intimated by a female sex worker operating in the city area, boys even in school uniforms vie for sex workers and spend nights away from home to indulge in this activity.

Emergence of mobile telephones has facilitated many sex workers to satisfy multiple number of clients in less time. Hence, daily earnings have raised nowadays. Average income for each worker which was hardly 200- 300 rupees per day earlier has now increased to 1500-2000 rupees. This in turn increases the probability of infections with sexually transmitted infections for both the sex workers and the clients. The sixth pay salary-raise and huge cash inflow in pockets of most easy-moneyed people also help raise the daily earning of the sex workers, besides escalating the number of female sex workers in the city.

Earlier commercial sex activities remain very rare and a stealthy affaire in Imphal. Today, it has become almost a normal business with those in the trade becoming more and more open. The sex workers have probably lost their sense of guilty consciousness being in the business. Most sex workers are alcoholic while a few of them are drug addicts.

Lodging hotels in the city particularly in Paona Bazar area and the North AOC even parade such women before clients, offer to select their likes and negotiate bucks. The trend has almost changed in recent years in such a way as it happens in the metros and in cities abroad. As per information received from NGOs working in this field, sex trade is burgeoning in Imphal city during the past few years with the highest concentration being at Paona Bazar and North AOC.

Other prone spots in Imphal are Thangal Bazar, Nagamapal area, Langol areas, Lamphel Sana Keithel, Lamphel Super market areas, Khuman Lampak, Dewlaland, checkon, Hatta etc.

There are around 1200 female sex workers currently operating this business in Imphal city. Many of them are suspected of having sexually transmitted infections including HIV. Around ten of the sex workers are presently registered under Ante-Retro viral treatment.

The picture everywhere is not the same. In some of Thangal bazaar area, female sex workers do the business with rich client businessmen in safe custody provided by the later. The public hardly recognise their presence and the trade is not as open as it is in other areas. Some of the liquor shops situated in Paona bazaar remain a rendezvous of the sex workers and their agents. With the careful manoeuvring of the so called agents, those females either go away with the clients or enter the booked lodging hotels.

Flesh trade in the city seems to be going on in an organised manner with strong connivance among hotel owners, security people and so called male and female agents. The older sex workers aged above 40s whose chastity have diminished with time, act as leaders to recruit new females into the business and earn percentages from client contacts. The sex workers lay strayed beside cinema halls and streets in the guise of cinema ticket black marketers, pan stall owners, and even as vegetable sellers.

Some of them unwillingly do the job for a bowl of rice a day. It is indeed shameful on the part of the chauvinistic male folk of the society that there are also men who bring their wives to the city, make them sell their sex and collect money only to spend time in drugs, alcohol and sex with others. Such stories of male irresponsibility are not bizarre happenings in Imphal city.

The Meetei Leimarol Sinnai Sang (MLSS), a non-government organisation has been working for intervention among the female sex workers since February 1999 with funding and support of National AIDS Control Society. The project has enrolled 1900 clients and is presently providing services to around 1200 women against the target of 1000 set at the beginning of the programme. The MLSS is also taking up another programme at Senapati district.

The Women's Health Clinic run by the MLSS at Khuyathong Imphal provide regular health check-up and counselling to the female sex workers. Sexually Transmitted Infections and various Opportunistic Infections are detected and treated at this clinic with proper counselling and free provision of drugs. Condom promotion, which is the only way for prevention against HIV and STI among the sex workers is one important component of the initiative taken up by the NGO. The NGO is also sensitising the community on the issue by way of organising routine discussion sessions.

One beautiful aspect of effort of the MLSS is formation of self-help groups of female sex workers and work towards their rehabilitation. Through the so called group 'Hingminnashi' formed under the initiative of the NGO, many sex workers are economically rehabilitated by way of micro financial support for running vegetable vendors and pan shops.

The MLSS is also nurturing around ten children who have been either left out by the female sex workers or are orphaned due to other circumstances. The 'Poirei Nawakol' situated at Koirengei in the outskirts of Imphal city remains a paradise for those children who are victims of the flesh trade.

Sex trade is an ugly business, the existence of which cannot be wiped out totally. However, it can be put under social control by way of providing moral education to the men-folk of the society. For the female sex workers, economic rehabilitation and health care are the only keys to pull them out of the business.

More recreation centres or clubs may be developed for the moneyed males to enable them to avoid such indulgence and join constructive activities. Only females who trade their chastity are not to be blamed for the burgeoning sex works. It is the irresponsible and immoral male folk of the society who need to change first. Otherwise, the present scenery of the city at dusk will certainly make Imphal to be always at dusk.

* Seram Neken wrote this article for Hueiyen Lanpao (English Edition). (This article is filed under RK Maipaksana Journalist Fellowship)
This article was webcasted on November 14, 2010.

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