At 62, Maibam Chanu Rita popularly known as M.C. Rita has put in almost 40 years of her life to the cause of caring for the stigmatized womenfolk of Manipur. As the Chief Functionary of the Meetei Leimarol Shina Sang (MLSS) she is assisted by A.C. Nganthoi as Treasurer who is 56. Both are single women and appear to have been married to their cause.
The MLSS literally translates into House of Skill Empowernment for the Meetei Women. In existence since 1983, the group’s birth coincided with the outbreak of the HIV/AIDS virus and the drugs scourge both of which exploded like an epidemic in Manipur at almost the same time.
The Manipuri variant of AIDS was known as Narco AIDS as it was spread through sharing of syringes by the Intravenous drug users. Although initially, drug users were confined to men, soon women too became users. And in order to buy their heroin fix, women drug users started becoming Commercial Sex workers (CSWs), further spreading the HIV in case they had been affected. Thus, the CSWs began to move up in the vulnerable risk chart. So, M.C. Rita and A.C. Nganthoi began working with the CSWs, counseling them and training them in new life skills.
Thus, the slow journey to realisation and rehabilitation began. The organization also provides night shelters for CSWs and Female Intravenous Drug Users (FIDUs) in a lodge which is called Home Sweet Home, and which can house a maximum of 30 people. CSWs and FIDUs wishing to halt the night pay a nominal sum of Rs. 30 per night.
The shelter is located at a vantage place called AOC in Imphal, which is not only a Red Light area but a place where women vendors openly hawk No.4 Heroin or Brown Sugar and the Manipuri variety of Heroin called “Thum-Mork” (Salt and Chilly) for its reddish color as different from the whitish No.4 Grade Heroin imported from Burma.
The difference is in the pricing for while the Burmese variety of heroin costs Rs. 2,500-3,000 per gram, the Manipuri variety comes for Rs.300 -500 per gram. The MLSS also runs a shelter home for the girl children of the CSWs and People Living with HIV (PLHV) at a place called Poirei Nawakon at Koirengei on the outskirts of Imphal.
There, the children are made to enter schools and after they finish Class 10 are then deposited with designated relatives of the CSWs. Some of them have become graduates and yet others have married. In some cases, they have been able to convince CSWs and their faithful clients to marry each other.
The group also have peer educators – former CSWs – to fan out in prespecified areas known as hot spots to talk to those who are currently engaged in the profession. They talk about safe sex and dispense condoms to them. They can also collect both condoms and fresh syringes from the MLSS’s office, all aimed at preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. According to M.C. Rita, Manipur saw a quantum jump in the number of CSW in the aftermath of the ethnic killings as many women were displaced from their homes and their husbands killed. The total number of CSWs in Manipur number about 5,000 while the MLSS has identified about 1,000 of them and has brought them in their target group, in Imphal West and east districts. In all, they have been able to effect behavioral change amongst 650 CSWs.
Besides Home Sweet Home, the MLSS also runs a stay home for women in difficult circumstances at Koirengei in Imphal East and this is called the ‘Leimakon Women’s Abode’. And like the children’s home, this one too is entirely supported by well-wishers. What is worrying members of the MLSS is the spurt in the ‘party culture’ in the State where girls take to alcohol and drugs. Soon they could become FIDUs and CSWs. All these are also related to the social media revolution prevailing around the world. MLSS has been campaigning with the public to desist from carrying out such actions. The MLSS also runs an Integrated Counselling and Testing Centres (ICTC) at its main office at Khuyathong in Imphal.
Here a person can in full anonymity come and get tested for HIV and obtain counselor advise in case the test is positive. Both men and women can avail of the service which is both fast and confidential as most people avoid going to the major hospitals for fear that they might run into people who know them. The MLSS also runs Link Workers Scheme in the hill districts of Senapati and Kangpokpi.
It is a rural based community approach for the effective prevention and control of HIV/AIDS. Having a staff strength of 25 and a number of Peer Educators, the MLSS is funded by the Manipur Aids Control Society (MACS) and also receives funds from the National Aids Control Organization (NACO) and the Department of Health Services, Government of Manipur.
But all said and done the efforts of Rita and her team are stellar for they have been successful in ‘breaking the silence’, especially with regard to Female Drugs Users and in making society view Commercial Sex Workers from a different perspective. As Rita puts it aptly, the growth in the number of CSWs is the result of the social-political and economic situation prevailing in the State.
For the record Manipur has a total of 1.5 lakh alcoholics and drug users. There are about 40,000 hard drug users, out of which 37,000 plus are intravenous drug users and as many as 5,000 are Commercial Sex Workers. The scene is indeed grim but the efforts of Rita and her all-woman team at the MLSS is indeed noteworthy and deserves full support