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The ascent Of Manipur's women - and their descent into drugs (Special to IANS)

Imphal: Boinu was about 21 when she fell in love and decided to get married. It seemed a better option than living with indifferent relatives who gave her shelter after the death of her divorced parents-an alcoholic father and a sick mother.

A lanky girl with a solemn face and raspy voice, Boinu (she uses one name) lived on India's far, eastern edge, in the town of Churachandpur, where the plains meet the hills in one of India's most diverse and conflict-ridden states, Manipur.

A year later, her husband had brought home another woman, and a distressed Boinu returned to her relatives. She spent the next many weeks in her room, bursting into tears every now and then, and seldom eating or talking to anyone. When some friends offered her a syringe packed with heroin, she took it.

"It's not like I had anything else working out for me," she said. "Soon, I was injecting heroin four times a day." Each injection, done among friends who did the same, usually meant about three grams, or "shots", of the drug, each Rs 100 - money she got from her relatives.

Boinu, now 29, is one of 236 female injecting drug users registered with the targeted intervention project of an Imphal-based NGO Nirvana Foundation that aims at preventing HIV among drug users. For two years, she has been coming here for shelter, medical checks or just to talk. Boinu has been a sex worker for six years, using her earnings to buy drugs, unable to kick her habit, and living on the streets with no family or social support.

There are hundreds of such drug users across the state. Among them are teenagers, teachers, mothers and - the latest victims - school girls. Their stories are important to India because this is a province where the country's much-discussed but slow-moving emancipation of women is moving from theory to reality. But years of relentless conflict, stress and collapsing governance are nullifying these advances.

The merits of being a Manipuri woman are nullified by being Manipuri

A girl child born in Manipur is more likely to not be killed at birth; more likely to be educated; more likely to be working as an adult; more likely to survive childbirth and more likely to not be the victim of crime than in most Indian states.

Contrast these statistics with another: Manipur had the highest percentage of female injecting drug users (28.2 per cent) among all northeastern states, according to a 2015 study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Manipur makes up less than 1 per cent of India's population, but even 25 years ago, the state's intravenous drug users accounted for 23.1 per cent of the nation's HIV cases because, as a 1991 paper explained, addicts share needles and syringes.

Life in Manipur is more challenging than in most Indian states. Manipur is half the size of Haryana, but its complexities are sub-continental. It has no more than 2.7 million people - twice the population of Goa - but it has more than 30 ethnic groups and tribes with conflicting aspirations, as many dialects and about 34 armed groups fighting either to secede from Manipur or India.

Manipur is a cauldron of strife, made worse by frequent excesses by security forces, granted impunity by a law - the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) - that provides them immunity from prosecution and has been in operation for 36 years, 10 more than in Kashmir.

More than 20,000 widows in Manipur have lost their husbands to extra-judicial killings by either state or non-state forces, and a large number of widows here are HIV positive following an HIV epidemic that gripped the state in the 1990s. More than 700,000 educated youth are unemployed because there are few industries and private enterprises; young Manipuris stream out into India's largest cities, their education, fluency with English and neat demeanour offering them employment across the country.

The protracted cycle of violence, poverty, unemployment, and ethnic tensions has pushed thousands of Manipuris to use drugs, the most common being heroin No. 4 - as the locally available version of high-quality heroin is called; Rs 100 a shot - perhaps a tenth of the cost in Punjab.

The easy, cheap availability of drugs comes from Manipur's location next to the Golden Triangle, a region at the borders of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, infamous for international drug runners. Every second household in Manipur now has at least one drug user or a history of a family member who died due to HIV or drug overdose, according to Kunal Kishore, an UNODC official.

"For many women, substances are a way of self-medicating for emotional problems or the experience of living under conditions of extreme distress," this 2008 UNODC report stated. Societies in constant cycles of violence and repression are prone to high degree of drug usage, Kishore added.

Manipuri women are most vulnerable because they are less likely than men to seek help or be treated because of the stigma and opprobrium involved, this 2012 study said. They are also more likely to take to sex work to feed their addiction.

In a 2011 study-conducted by two NGOs, Alliance India, and Social Awareness Service Organisation (SASO), among female addicts in Manipur-17 percent of women reported experiencing physical violence over the last three months, about 49 per cent reported harassment, and 32 per cent said they had been isolated by their families.

People who take to drugs set off a cycle of drug-taking. "In a close-knit society where vulnerable women have injecting drug users around them, the likelihood of them taking to drugs is extremely high," Kishore said. Feeding this addiction leads women into progressively darker areas.

While the number of injecting drug users was increasing, said Nepram, people were now more aware of safe practices so the chances of infection were considerably lower.

However, for those like Boinu who crave a new life, every day brings a new struggle. "I walk with the thought that people are constantly judging me, and they'd much rather I did not exist," said Boinu. "Drugs made my already difficult life more difficult, but I still hope that it will all get better someday."

Names of the two female drug users in the article have been changed to protect their identity.

(In arrangement with IndiaSpend.org, a data-driven, non-profit, public interest journalism platform. Sarita Santoshini is an independent journalist based in Assam, reporting on human rights. The views expressed are those of IndiaSpend. Feedback at respond@indiaspend.org)

--IANS

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