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 lived on India’s far, eastern edge, in the town of Churachandpur in Manipur.
An 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 costing Rs 100 from the money she got from her relatives.
Boinu, now 29, is one of the 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 to the NGO 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 state where the country’s much-discussed but slow-moving emancipation of women is moving from theory to reality. However, years of relentless conflict, stress and collapsing governance are nullifying these advances.
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 is 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 north-eastern 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.
The vulnerability of living in Manipur
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 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.
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, likely to be a tenth of the cost in Punjab.
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, Mr 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 per cent 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,” Mr Kishore said.
Name of the female drug user in the article have been changed to protect her identity.