E-Pao! HIV/AIDS Awareness - Flesh trade

Flesh Trade
- A look without biases or judgement -

By: Thingnam Anjulika Samom *

Twenty three year old Ningning loves to go out shopping with her friends and watching the soap operas on cable TV. But most times she misses out on her favourite pastimes as she is busy serving her customers at the “hotel” where she works. However, it is not food but her own body that she serves to her customers.

Ningning is one of the many young girls and women who are presently engaged in commercial sex work in Manipur. And behind the fast increasing population of commercial sex workers in the State lies a tale of acute poverty, armed conflict and drug abuse – a heady mixture which is emerging as the major reasons behind the entry of many a young girl and woman into this age-old profession.

It was ten years ago that Ningning, then a tender thirteen year old, first started servicing her “customers.”

Having lost her parents, home and belongings to the 1997 Kuki-Paite ethnic killings in the hills of Manipur, the only way to get food for herself and her three younger sisters was to turn to the world’s oldest profession.

During the last few decades, Manipur has been wracked by armed conflict induced violence that has left thousands killed and rendered many others homeless. Apart from the violence of the nearly five decade long history of insurgency movements and counter-insurgency operations, the 1990s itself has been witness to the killings of the Meitei-Pangal, Naga-Kuki and Kuki-Paite ethnic clashes.

“They attacked our village in the middle of the night. Our houses were burnt and all who were in front of them – men, women and children – were hacked down and killed. We didn’t even have the 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,” Ningning said.

Twenty-six year old Kimnu’s story is similar. Her parents too were killed during the 1997 clashes. She and her other two siblings were also separated in the chaos. They landed at different refugee camps.

“Initially, people gave us food and some clothes as aid. But there were so many refugees. How long could they feed us everyday? ” Kimnu said.

“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 thirty year old Hoinu, who lost her family in the Naga-Kuki clash in the early 1990s.

“I want my plate of rice. I also want vegetables with it. Who will feed me everyday ? Why should I beg everyday ? If you too were in our position, even you would have done as we did,” says Kimnu.

Though both the State Government and other agencies had provided some interim relief to the affected, apparently there are many individuals and families who were left out. “There are still around a few thousands who are not aware of the aid facilities and many other who weren’t listed,” says Ngai, a peer counselor working with CSWs in Chura-chandpur district.

“You could say this rampant flesh trade started after the clashes. Before there were some women in the trade, but the number swelled enormously after the clashes,” she adds.

According to her, many of the women whose families were displaced by the Khuga Dam project has also joined the trade. “There will be more soon, especially after displacement by the Tipaimukh project,” she said 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. Booze joints wait for this kind of vulnerable girls, and in return for food and shelter introduce her to the flesh trade, sometimes forcibly,” says M Pramotchand of the Imphal-based Population Health Institute (PHI).

According to Nganthoi, a counselor with the Meitei Leimarol Sinnai Sang (MLSS) in Imphal, in most cases, the entry into the flesh trade is a long road. “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. And for the kids the first demand centre is the mother, not the father. She will also try her hands at any kind of work available to feed her child,” she says.

MLSS is one of the NGOs working with CSWs under a Manipur State Aids Control Society (MSACS) project for intervention against HIV/AIDS.

Pramotchand adds, “In the work sector 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 the State 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.

Forty-nine year old 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 much money. But a fellow trader secretly gave her heroin in a cigarette and got her hooked to it. Now, she sells herself 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. The death of a girl in a prominent hotel in the heart of Imphal after consuming too many SP tablets before servicing a customer had hit the news recently.

What is saddening is that many of these girls are highly educated. Gloris 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 areas 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,” Pramot-chand adds. Very often these young girls after being duped into the trade don’t want to return due to the high level of stigma attached to the trade.

There are some glaring examples that in all probability many of these girls are being trafficked outside the State. On the pretext of marriage Sanahal was taken to Guwahati and deserted there by her lover. She took refuge with a woman who ran a small hotel.

A couple of women, who looked like Manipuris and were regular visitors at the hotel, persuaded her to go with them to stay with their “student” daughter instead of toiling at the hotel. But Sanahal landed up in Mumbai. Though she was saved by the timely intervention of a social worker there, it was clear that she was brought there to be sold off.

However it is difficult to assess exactly how many girls and women are in this line at present. Unlike in other parts of the country, the sex workers in Manipur are not brothel based, and instead prefer to operate in another part of the State and return after a day, a week or even a month to their original place.

In areas like Moreh on the Indo-Myanmar border, there are also CSWs coming from across the border and operating in the satellite town. The high level of stigmatization that comes with the trade as well the active activities of the moral task enforcers such as women’s and students’ groups also have contributed to the high level of secrecy around the trade.

All these factors have snowballed the already precarious HIV/AIDS scenario in the State as the sexual route is emerging to be the major reason for the spread of the disease. However there are no organizations or departments working exclusively for the CSWs apart from some projects by the Manipur State Aids Control Society (MACS) as part of its overall work against HIV/AIDS.

The project which covers Imphal East District, Imphal West, Churachandpur, Moreh and Kangpokpi, has been providing HIV preventive services to 6865 CSWs as per a report of the MACS. These include girls as young as 14 years, from all sections including Meitei, Kuki, Naga, Paite and Pangal (Manipuri Muslim).

Most of these programmes however are mostly aimed at changing their behaviour or total abstinence. In most cases the CSWs often fall back on their normal trade. Says Esther Chinnu, a social worker working with destitute women, including CSWs, “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 to Moreh or some other place, stay there with friends for a few days, they can come back with whatever they want – clothes, money, luxury items …”

The lack of a comprehensive assessment by the State Government as well as a Governmental policy on the issue is clearly a reflection of how both the Manipuri society as well as policy makers have chosen to feign ignorance of the existence of the thriving flesh trade in the State.

According to a senior police officer, existing laws too are insufficient to address the problem. “The existing laws enable us to arrest the pimps or the traffickers. When we conduct raids, under which laws do we book the couple caught in the act ? If they are not minors, they are just two consenting adults,” he says.

“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,” says Pramotchand.

Perhaps the most pertinent query was raised by Gloris. A sex worker herself, she asked, “In other places we hear that CSWs are also asserting their rights. Here, who is there for us ? We can’t even call a bandh to demand our rights like many people do.”

While the State Government as well as civil society ponders over the question, young girls like Ningning, Kimnu and Gloris will continue to wait in their squalor-filled homes for their customers and pay with their bodies for their next meal.

Thingnam Anjulika Samom wrote this article for The Sangai Express . You can contact the writer at thingnam(at)yahoo(dot)com . This article was webcasted on August 1st, 2007

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