“I find joy and satisfaction here after going through the humiliation of being a school dropout in 2016 and physical abuse meted out by my husband. I was studying in class 9 when we eloped and married. We separated a year later,” a young woman said, beaming with hope.
Five years have passed since Philangam V Zimik of Lamlang, Ukhrul district separated from her husband in 2017 to become a single mother and live with her parents.
A school dropout and jobless till last year, 22-year-old Philangam’s compass now points towards joining her friends at the workplace where they weave and tailor bags, pouches, mobile covers and several other items.
As told to the Imphal Free Press, Philangam was trained in tailoring last year and weaving this year under the project initiated for the welfare of women who are either people living with HIV/AIDS (PLHIV) or school dropouts. It was initiated by the Tangkhul Baptist Churches Association (TBCA) Women Union.
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Philangam further said that with the training and the tasks performed there at the workplace, she is now able to earn an income, however meagre, to send her five-year-old only son to school and to support herself.
“I cannot live with regrets my whole life. I’m now committed to ensuring that my child acquires adequate education and skills in life,” she asserted with pride.
Another trainee, who is a PLHIV and chose to be anonymous, said that the daily needs of her younger three children depend solely on the daily wages and the family support she gets monthly in the form of stipend through the project.
“My husband passed away in 2005 and we have been a struggling family. Although my eldest daughter is working as a teacher, our earnings do not suffice us as the prices of commodities needed daily have increased,” she stated.
Saying that she understands her vulnerability to stigma and the challenges of finding other jobs, she said that she is extremely grateful for being a part of the project.
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Meanwhile, secretary of TBCA Women Union, Tharmichon N Rungsung, who is looking after the project under the name Centre for Women Empowerment (CeWe), said that the mission was to reach out to destitute and vulnerable women.
She stated that drug abuse in Manipur during the 1990s in which Ukhrul district was not spared left many destitute as widows and orphans.
“Adding to this chaotic situation, they were emotionally and mentally degraded as they were socially stigmatised as unclean, immoral, and rejected in every aspect of social life.
"The present nomenclature ‘Centre for Women Empowerment’ was given in 2006 and launched as a full-fledged Vocational Training Centre in 2008 with 17 trainees comprising PLHIVs,” she said.
Rungsung added that the centre has so far moulded more than 80 women under its care while many of them continued to use their skills to earn their living and even started their own venture.
Presently, 40 per cent of the income earned is used in procuring raw materials, while 60 per cent is used in disbursing daily wages and monthly stipend to the women, she added.
Tharmichon maintained that their vision is a just and sustained society where dignity and worth of a woman is recognised and where women are enabled to co-participate in cultural, socio-economic, spiritual and political aspects of a society.
As told by her, the centre also provides and organises life skill development activities like craftworks and food processing; personality enhancement, daily devotion, Bible Study programmes, counseling sessions, exposure trips among others besides training in tailoring and weaving.
“The current workplace has grown smaller to provide all the facilities. Yet our plan to establish a residential training building for the offered vocations is also yet to be fulfilled since we are economically challenged as the proper outlet of the finished products is limited,” she stated.
It is pertinent to mention here that according to the Unified District Information System for Education data 2020-21, Manipur among other Northeast states has the highest school dropout rate in the country at the primary level. Besides, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is also comparatively higher in Manipur as per reports.
Nevertheless, social stigma associated with HIV/AIDS and school dropouts apparently diminished in the recent past. Many bend, few break while some rise when confronted with struggles and challenges in life yet the bags, pouches and embroidered items of varied colours and patterns woven and tailored by these women unfold as fresh hopes and resilience.