At nearby Thangal Bazaar and North AOC areas, too, organised sex trade has seen a steady growth in the recent years, according to data compiled by NGO Meitei Leimarel Sinnai Sang (MLSS).
S Inaocha, the project director of MLSS, said a survey conducted till August has registered 915 female sex workers (FSW) in the state capital as against 908 last year.
“The actual figure is far more than what we have recorded as many FSWs were reluctant to reveal their true identities. Even the ones who have registered themselves with MLSS had to be persuaded several times,” she said.
Most of these women have been victims of extreme poverty and abuse, Inaocha stated. “Behind every case of FSW, there exists a tragic individual history. They were either forced into the profession by their near ones or had to take it up to feed their families.”
Onaebe was just 15 years old when she was married off to a heroin addict at Thoubal district by her family. After giving birth to a daughter, she divorced her husband at the age of 19 and came to the capital town to earn a living by selling vegetables.
“Selling regular vegetables, I could barely make Rs 200 per day. It was difficult to make ends meet. At the motels, I earn more than Rs 200 in an hour,” Onaebe, who is now 25, said.
However, the money they earn and the amount they take home are never the same. “The pimps and arrangers often take away a chunk of the collections these FSWs make. They are the ones who run the show,” Inaocha said.
Another woman, who refused to be identified, said she was tricked into joining the trade by a local at her hometown in Churachandpur district. “I came to Imphal to work for a private company, but ended up joining the flesh trade. I was locked up in a hotel room for several days and not allowed to contact anyone. They agreed to set me free only after I relented,” she added.
Many of these women start taking drugs to cope with the stress and humiliation. “The FSWs registered with MLSS also included Female Injecting Drug Users (FIDUs). Some of them take heavy doses of heroin to get through the day,” Inaocha said.
Nirvana Foundation, another NGO working with women addicts, said it has registered 265 FIDUs as of September this year compared to 231 last year.
Both FSWs and FIDUs face harassment by social groups and clubs engaged in moral policing, H Devlaxmi, the project manager of Nirvana Foundation, said. “These women are often badly assaulted by local groups, rendering them paralysed for a week,” she said.
Both MLSS and Nirvana have come together to open “night shelters” for the sex workers and addicts. “The shelters would save them from exploitation to a certain extent in the night hours,” Devlaxmi explained.
Alliance India, headquartered in Delhi, along with Nirvana is currently conducting a research – Violence Intervention – to analyse the hostility perpetuated towards FIDUs and FSWs by the moral policing brigade, she said.
“It’s a challenging task as these social groups target women who cannot retaliate. They, however, cannot raise a finger at those who import the bulk of drugs in the State from India-Myanmar border town of Moreh,” the project manager at Nirvana said.
Often the FIDUs flee their homes and cities fearing these moral policing drives. “The FSWs and FIDUs are too scared to file complaints with the police. It becomes hard to trace them once they leave without informing us,” Inaocha said.
The two NGOs, along with local activists, are trying to raise awareness on the legal rights enjoyed by the women. “A legal clinic under Manipur State Legal Services Authority was set up in July this year to promote awareness of the rights available to FIDUs. Apart from that, we are also trying to educate these women about the options available to them in times of distress,” Inaocha added.