In the Northeastern state of Manipur, tribal women have spearheaded a unique initiative to check the spread of drug abuse, a social malaise that has today assumed alarming epidemic proportions in that state.
Calling themselves 'Meira Paibis' (literally, Women's Federation), groups of old women began by patrolling the valley areas, armed with torches and iron gongs to ward off crimes. Subsequently they augmented their night-long vigils to include alcohol and drug addiction as well.
They imposed fines of Rs 150 and tied empty liquor bottles to necks of men found drinking in public and Rs 5,000 on sellers of alcohol. In areas patrolled by the Meira Paibis, drug use patterns changed substantially, with decline in riotous behavior and greater safety for women at night.
The Meira Paibis initiative is showcased in a new report on 'Drug Use in the Northeastern States of India' brought out jointly by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Indian government's Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.
In the states of Manipur and Nagaland, injecting drug use is the leading cause of HIV, which has expanded from being a concentrated epidemic among injecting drug users in the late-1980s into a generalized epidemic a decade later. As per latest NACO figures, Manipur and Nagaland are high prevalence states (over 5 per cent among high-vulnerability groups and over one per cent among women attending antenatal clinics).
But the good news, says the report, has been the formation of organizations of former and current drug users along with organizations of women infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS working as a force for social change. In fact, some of the path-breaking initiatives to reduce the burden of drug use in the family have actually been achieved through self-help groups (SHG) in the Northeast, some of them spearheaded by women, it adds.
One such inspirational leader is Champuii, 21, of Mizoram who is trying to wean away youngsters from drugs through music. Hailing from a broken home, Champuii took to drugs at an early age. It was only when she nearly died of an overdose that the young woman saw the havoc that drugs had wrought on youngsters all around her. She decided to take action. Using her music as a battle cry, Champuii's message is simple. She talks about HIV and offers free condoms and new syringes for drug users.
"I used to be a drug addict and because I was an addict, I couldn't live with my family. I was forced to live on the streets," says the woman who has become something of a local celebrity in her hometown, Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram. "What I'm trying to do is to start an SHG and begin group education programs," she explains.
Hmangaihzuali, 25, of Kawnoui village, about 40 km from Aizawl, left home in search of a job at the age of 17. After a few unsuccessful attempts at gainful employment and a messy marriage and divorce, she met a woman from Myanmar who was a supplier of alcohol. This woman would go to Silchar in Assam, a state neighboring Mizoram, to get the stuff and sell it to the local suppliers in Aizawl at a very high rate because sale of alcohol is prohibited in Mizoram.
"As the business was very lucrative, I decided to work with this woman and got into the habit of drinking alcohol," she says. By the time she parted ways with the woman a few months later, Hmangaihzuali was also hooked onto drugs. "The need to buy drugs, combined with limited access to money, compelled me to engage in sex work in return for treats," she recollects.
During this time, she was spotted in the streets and admitted to a protective home by a local NGO, SHALOM, which works to rehabilitate drug abusers. She stayed at the home for a year, during which she fell ill and tested HIV+. Shocked and in a state of disbelief, Hmangaihzuali finally reconciled to her situation and joined SHALOM as a volunteer, determined to help others similarly situated.
"I have new meaning in my life now, helping my peers and earning my own living. I have managed to rent a small house for myself and finally I've got a place to call my own," she says proudly.
Drug use raises two issues in the gender context - drug use by women and the burden on women due to drug use by male family members. Referring to the HIV prevalence among injecting drug users (IDUs) in Northeast India, the UNODC report says HIV made inroads among IDUs in Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland, three of the four Northeastern states that have a common border with Myanmar from where injectible drugs are sourced.
The current dimensions of the HIV epidemic in Manipur and Nagaland are of great concern because HIV has made significant inroads in these states in other population groups, including women in the reproductive age group and newborn children. The HIV epidemic in Mizoram and Meghalaya has a similar potential for spreading through the drug-sex interface due to the existing unorganized sex trade and the practice of injecting drug use by both men and women, the report cautions.
The Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment, Meira Kumar, releasing the report on May 24, 2006, stressed on accelerating awareness to facilitate a wider reach of information, especially among the vulnerable groups, including youth, school children and street children. In this context, she pointed out that her Ministry is providing grants-in-aid to about 375 NGOs for drug de-addiction schemes, of which 46 NGOs are functioning exclusively in the Northeastern states.
The report proposes certain programmatic recommendations for varying level of actors, including policymakers, civil society, service providers, drug users and their social networks. These include the need for establishing effective drug use monitoring and reporting systems for all eight Northeastern states, community-level advocacy, capacity building and inclusion of sexual risk reduction to the existing package of services.
Meanwhile, groups like Meira Paibis and individuals like Hmangaihzuali and Champuii plod on tirelessly, making small but significant strides in the fight against drug abuse and HIV/AIDS. "I want those people who are drug addicts or HIV+ to come to me for help, because I have suffered the same problems, and can empathize with them and help them in their hour of need," underlines Champuii.