GenderAnd Development: The highs and lows of women drug users in Manipur

28.2 per cent of female injecting drug users in India are from Manipur, the highest in the country.

Updated: December 19, 2017 4:10:27 pm

“SP, World is yours, Heroin; they make you feel like superman. Oh wait, superwoman! Thanks to these drugs, I survived some very distressing phases of my life. I felt sick, tired, helpless and irritable when I wasn’t taking them.

~Akon speaking about the high she got from drugs.

For over seven years, Akon was addicted to ‘World is yours’ (WY) and SP tablets. The former is a mixture of caffeine and methamphetamine, while Spasmo Proxyvon (SP) is a painkiller with a mild opioid. Akon would feel a gush of energy and euphoria. And then a period of insomnia, irritation, anxiety and anger would follow. To get over these lows, she would burn and smoke more tablets. It was a vicious circle and Akon was stuck.

Akon is currently undergoing treatment at the Integrated Rehabilitation Centre for Addicts (ICRA) in Torbung, a small village in Churachandpur district, in south-west Manipur. The residential centre situated in the midst of lush green farms is a two-hour drive from the capital Imphal. Since its establishment in October 1999, this women-only center has enabled more than 2,000 women drug users between the age groups of 15-60 find rehabilitation, including medical treatment, psychological counselling and vocational training. Most women, like Akon have landed here on their own.

When I walked into the centre a few months ago, Akon was sitting in a group. Most of them were laughing, cracking jokes. Akon, though was silent and distant. An hour later, when she decided to talk about her journey to Torbung, Akon mentioned her marriage to a drug peddler in Thoubal district and her six children.

“It didn’t matter to me that he was making his living by transporting drugs across the border, at least not until his travels led to the extramarital affairs. When I first found out about other women, I drank up a bottle of cough syrup so that I could stop crying. I felt I was flying. It was my first brush. I got addicted soon enough. In the last seven years, I have been going to rehabilitation centers, but it keeps coming back. I have had 10 relapses till now,” she says.

Manipur: The highest number of female injecting drug usersAkon’s story is similar to that of many other female drug users in Manipur, who are either pushed into drugs by their husbands/ partners or encouraged by peers. A 2015 study by the UN office on Drugs and Crime says that 28.2 per cent of female injecting drug users in India are from Manipur, the highest in the country.

The same study says that for more than half of Manipur’s women addicts, drug peddling and sex work are the primary sources of income. Like in the case of Akon, whose husband moved to Assam and her parents took her children away, women drug users in Manipur are unlikely to be living with a partner or spouse, a reason that makes them more vulnerable to continued abuse.

“I have nowhere to go, no one to be with.” Akon says, her voice feeble, almost incoherent.

Manipur with it porous border with Myanmar (the world’s second largest producer of opium after Afghanistan) is an easy transit and market for drugs. The civil insurgent movements and prolonged cycles of violence and repression have all contributed to the high rate of drug abuse. Men and women, both equally vulnerable, but for different reasons.

“Post the 1992-1993 Naga- Kuki conflict, many Kukis migrated to different parts of Manipur. Young girls went to Imphal, trying to make a living. They fell prey to the drug peddlers and traffickers who started using them for transporting drugs across the border. The history of women addicts starts there. Today, the reasons why men and women in this region become addicts are very different, says Pradeep Keisem, Member of Manipur State Commission for Protection of Child Rights.

Conflict, Unemployment and Easy Availability: The Drug CocktailYoung men with their faces masked in scarves, plying rickshaws on the streets of Imphal has been an imagery used to describe unemployment in the state. These are educated young men, graduates, in many cases unable to find employment. Nearly 7.5 lakh people registered unemployed in the state as of February, 2016. The literacy rate for Manipur at 79.85 per cent, is higher than the national average of 74.04 per cent.

“For men, it’s the boredom that comes with unemployment, peer pressure or simply a job as a drug peddler. For most women, it’s likely to be an escape from the trauma they may have experienced. It could be because they have lost their husbands to extra judicial killings or have suffered domestic violence. There are also college going girls who are now taking it up for the fun of it, because of easy availability. 100-150 rupees for a tablet. They are trying eraser, mosquito repellent or even SP,” Keisem explains.

Why Women Are Left Behind in Anti-Drug ProgrammesExperts say that given the drug use among women in the state, responses and rehabilitation efforts have neither kept pace nor distinguished between men and women and the prejudices they face. Unlike in case of men, families of female drug users are likely to abandon and disown them. Men are more likely to get support from their families once they are on the path to recovery. Women are not easily re-integrated, which makes them more vulnerable to relapses. “55% of women treated here have had relapses. 70% women who come here are destitute or homeless. Very few are brought in by families. 70% of women who come here are sex workers, and it becomes difficult to treat them along with the college going girls,” explains Maharabi Singh, the co-coordinator at ICRA Torbung.

 

Rima, a 44-year old single woman wanted to pose for photographs without a veil when we met her at the centre in Torbung. “I don’t care,” she said. “I tried Heroin for the first time when I was 20, mainly because everyone in college was trying it. I got addicted to an extent that if I didn’t inject even a single day, I would go mad. In all these years, I have had 20-30 relapses. My family has abandoned me, they didn’t even think of getting me married. Maybe if I were a man, I would have got help, there would be more options for help.”

Opiate Substitution Therapy (OST), a form of treating opiate addiction by replacing illicit drugs with medically prescribed ones, such as buprenorphine or methadone is one such help that Rima is referring to. Research has shown that OST is effective in reducing illicit drug intake, vulnerability to HIV and death from overdose. Despite these benefits, only 3 percent of injecting drug users in India—and only 8 percent of them worldwide—have access to OST, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). It is even more difficult for women, to access OST, given that it is available only as a last resort after the patient proves that they have tried and failed programmes for drug rehabilitation and detoxification.

 

Apart from facing structural barriers in accessing services like the OST which are already inadequate and available in male dominated centres, women drug users are also more susceptible to HIV, TB, Hepatitis and reproductive health issues. “If they are married to male drug users, the prevailing socio-cultural norms increases their vulnerability to contract HIV as they don’t have the agency to negotiate safe sex or refuse sex,” says Keishem.

Akon had sought treatment at other centers (for both men and women) before she came to the women-only center at Torbung. Majority of the patients there were male. So was the staff. There was abuse and violence, and even sexual abuse in some of the male dominated centers, thus making it impossible for women to seek residential treatments.

“There is a lot of lacuna that needs to be filled. To help the younger girls, we need a juvenile IRCA center. We also need more exclusive women facilities that allow children. Of course, regulations that stop the easy availability of drugs are most important, ” says Mahrabi Singh. His team of 12 members, 5 male and 7 female divide the day, keeping women busy in group conversation, physical exercise, meditation, physiotherapy and counselling sessions.

Just then Rima says, “You know what people here believe? A male drug addict can make a good husband or a father someday but a woman drug user can never be a good wife or mother ever,” underlining the crux of this journey from drugs to sobriety.

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(All names have been changed on request) Sindhuja Parthasarathy is a freelance photojournalist and a practising psychologist. The views expressed are her own