reportage Health

Invisible Women

The unseen plight of Manipur’s female drug users

By S COUSINS | 1 September 2017

ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF IMPHAL, an abandoned red-brick house stands amid rice paddies, its front garden overgrown with weeds. It does not have a front door, just a chained gate, and its floors are made of concrete. The house looks like it is still being constructed, with pieces of wood, piles of garbage and other building materials lying around in it. Dirty footprints on the ground are the only signs that visitors frequent the decrepit structure.

The house is a spot where injecting drug users in the Imphal area congregate. When I visited the place on a dusty morning in late May, I encountered a group of men and women of varying ages, lying down on the floor of a back room, which was littered with needles. Some were injecting heroin. Others were smoking bright-red tablets of WY—a mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine. They were placing the tablets on a strip of aluminium foil, heating them from below, breathing in the fumes and then exhaling huge clouds of smoke. In nearby Myanmar, where WY is produced, it is called yaba, which translates literally to “mad drug.”

One of the people gathered was Jenny: a 46-year-old woman who comes to the house every day to do drugs. Jenny, who is homeless, used to be a schoolteacher. Now, she deals drugs and does sex work in order to survive, and to afford drugs for herself.

Jenny, who has a sunken face and greying hair that she ties in a low bun, was wearing a dark green long skirt. The rest of the users in the house looked like they came from varied backgrounds—a few wore button-down shirts and long pants and seemed like they were taking a quick break from work, whereas others looked completely dishevelled and lost.

Jenny and I sat on stools as she made small talk with a middle-aged woman—one of the chief drug dealers in Imphal. The woman cut a pile of white powder heroin and divided it into bags, each one priced at Rs 100—enough for one hit. A six-year-old girl—the dealer’s daughter—wandered around the building, barefoot. The child’s job was to unlock the chain at the front of the building whenever someone turned up, and to fetch water whenever people needed it. Jenny bought a few grams of heroin to deal on the streets later in the afternoon, storing it in an inner zippered pocket of her purse.

“I’m sorry you have to see this,” she told me. “Please don’t ever do drugs.”

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S Cousins is a health journalist and writer based in Nepal. Her work focusses on the systems that perpetuate inequality and the impact this has on women’s and girls’ health.

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