Living as ‘anonymous persons’, female sex workers deprived of government benefits
Social Welfare director Uttam told the IFP that fear of stigma and discrimination suppress FSWs to disclose their real identity that ultimately lead to losing the opportunity to access government welfare schemes.
Updated on 28 Dec 2021, 11:51 am
(Representational Image: Unsplash)
Manipur has been witnessing a fall in the number of people infected with disease that spread through unsafe sex such as HIV or sexually transmitted infection (STI). However, the problem of stigma, social exclusion, discrimination and all forms of physical and verbal abuse of female sex workers (FSWs) persist in the state that compelled them to live like ‘anonymous persons’ in society. Living as 'anonymous persons' to avoid disclosing their real identity for fear of social stigma, the FSWs are being deprived of the benefits of all government welfare schemes.
Manipur is one of the states with high prevalence rate of HIV infection in India. According to the National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) report of 2019, Mizoram was estimated to have the highest adult HIV prevalence rate with 2.32 per cent followed by Nagaland with 1.45 per cent and Manipur in third position with 1.81 per cent. NACO has categorised FSW as one of the vulnerable groups to HIV/AIDS infection.
It may be mentioned that the Indian Constitution guarantees ‘Rights to Equality’ to every citizen of the country. Unfortunately many FSWs alienate themselves from society not wanting to bear the pain of stigma. In the wake of it, ‘Rights to Equality’ is meaningless for them.
The Government of India and the state government had launched numerous welfare schemes to uplift poor people. But, unfortunately, women who went into sex work driven by poverty did not even think to enquire about it. This doesn’t mean that they don’t wish to avail the facilities. The felt need to hide their identity as the most effective mechanism to evade from stigma and discrimination has become a barrier to availing all government welfare scheme benefits.
“I don’t know how my daughter, siblings and relatives are doing as it has been almost a decade that the communication was completely terminated with them,” said a 30-year-old FSW, Thoi (name changed,) to Imphal Free Press.
When asked about the reason to become a sex worker, she replied with tears in her eyes that shattered hopes due to endless suffering since her childhood till her marriage has forced to become an FSW.
“You know I was brought up in a broken family and out of poverty, I didn’t get proper education and got married at the age of 19. My life became tougher after my marriage as my husband died two years after being together due to drug addiction,” she said.
She said that for some years, she works as a daily wager doing whatever works she gets. But owing to the mounting pressure for survival, she started engaging in sex work as a last resort.
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“Now I have realised the consequences of being into this profession. I feel that money is the root of all evil. I would like to earnestly request that people should not ill-treat FSWs as there are many women who wish to give up and join mainstream and lead a normal life. For this, public moral support and guidance is much needed,” Thoi appealed.
Secretary, Meitei Leimarol Sinaisang, SC Chaoba told to Imphal Free Press that HIV/AIDS infection rate among FSWs has been reducing for the past several years despite the fact that the number of FSWs keep on increasing steadily.
During the 1990s to 2000, HIV/AIDS positivity rate was very high. Maximum number of FSW who enrolled during those days tested HIV positive. The reduction of HIV positivity rate amongst FSW who are considered as most vulnerable section to infect HIV shows that they started realising the advantage of using birth control such as condoms, she added.
She said that the Meitei Leimarol Sinaisang has been working from past 1990s under the Manipur State AIDS Control Society (MACS). Their organization had dealt with around 2,500 FSW so far and at present 900 FSWs are still under their support and guidance. The fact that more FSWs keep on enrolling each year shows that women into sex work still growing.
As an NGO working in association with MACS, they provide counseling service to FSWs to change their behavior, They are also provided Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART) treatment, TB check-up, sexually transmitted infections (STI) check-up, viral load testing and condom promotion, she informed.
Chaoba said that lack of proper income is one of the major reasons of most of the women whosoever registered in her NGOs. The miseries, problems, pangs and agonies that created out of financial constraints ignited them to choose sex work as their only means to meet their ends.
But sadly, even their own family viewed them as ‘immoral women’, ‘burden to society’ and ousted them. However many such women give up the profession after getting proper guidance and providing their source of livelihood, she added.
She said that through conducting rigorous counselling and advised of using condoms, common disease that are transmitted by FSWs has been under control to some extent. However, unending social stigma associated to FSWs cripples them to live a dignified life.
Frightened of social stigma, discrimination, social abuse and violence, they usually try to hide their identity. More than 90 per cent of FSWs doesn’t want to get any identification card. This scene has made them to avail any kind of government scheme a pipe dream, Chaoba mentioned while appealing to the authority concerned to take up some long-term policy that enable FSWs to get some social security from the government.
In an interaction with the Imphal Free Press, director, Social Welfare, Ngangom Uttam Singh said that there is no such long-term policy or programme especially for female sex workers. But considering the issues of FSW in the state, it is usually associated with drug addiction. The department provides rehabilitation centre for FSW who wish to join the mainstream. During their stay at the centre, short term training is also provided on sources of livelihood once they are set free from the de-addiction centre.
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He further said that keeping in view how the ongoing pandemic has hit hard every section of society, the department had initiated to provide financial assistance to FSW. For this, a total amount of Rs 1.7 crore was sanctioned for around 5600 FSW (as per report from Manipur State AIDS Control Society). The money will be disbursed through concerned district commissioner soon and then it will transferred to NGOs working in this field. The NGOs will further hand over the amount to FSWs registered under them.
Uttam said that fear of stigma and discrimination suppress their courage to disclose their real identity that ultimately lead to losing the opportunity to access government welfare schemes.
Sex work is a social issue and society as a whole is responsible to stem this menace, he added.
He appealed to people of the state to understand the underlying problems that force women to enter into sex work rather than just bluntly criticising or abusing them.
Manipur State Commission for Woman (MSCW) member Lourembam Dayabati said that according to their field survey, it was noticed that women entering into sex work are gradually increasing. At one of point of time, it was observed that women who inject drugs usually join such profession. But poverty or lack of continuous financial support coupled with the advent of materialistic society has become the main factors that push women to join this profession, Dayabati said.
It is a well-known fact that FSW suffers violence, abuse or discrimination, but not a single woman who openly claimed as FSW approached the commission for their rights or for any problems, she added, while assuring that MSCW can also extend their possible support for their rights and welfare if they come forward and asked any help from them.
Phurailatpam Keny Devi
IFP Reporter, IMPHAL, Manipur