Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

Classic Group of Hotels
Humans have naturally occurring variations in sex characteristics. (Michael Spencer, Wikimedia)

Genealogy of Marginality of Female Sex Worker: Is Anyone Listening?

During my fieldwork in Imphal, Manipur in between 2018 and 2019, I visited an organization working for HIV/AIDS intervention focusing on the risk group, Female Sex Workers and the programme is supported by MACS (Manipur AIDS Control Society). This is where I encountered the Female Sex Workers (FSWs) for the first time and began my interaction with them. While waiting for the officials of the organisation, they invited me to join them for tea and snacks. Having graduated in social work, the ability to attune and maintain being non-judgmental, empathy to mention some, comes naturally. From the first day onward, I was able to connect and strike a conversation without much difficulty; and the conversation continued with them in my subsequent visits. The initial perception I had earlier about sex workers from the images as seen in cinema and in literary works were neutralized after my first encounter; and I gradually realized how the question on the covert nature of their work appeared to be out of place in the midst of the conversation we were having. However, it was an important point to make an enquiry and learn from their lived experience – the aspects of their work and their social life to locate the genealogy of their marginality.

The State of Manipur has witnessed a long history of women’s movement and their experiences portraying the unrelenting stories of hunger, anger, pain, loss, helplessness and bravery that surfaces a certain kind of body politics since the pre- and post-independence era around the different forms of violence of the colonial masters, the nation-state and non-state actors. In these social, political and historical trajectories, women’s lived experiences and their political struggle occupies a certain kind of space in the collective memory of the land. Moreover, in the last few decades, the women’s mobilization on various issues against alcoholism and drug addiction, defending the human rights against the indiscriminate actions of the state forces on the local youth have indented the social memory as well; however, the voices of the ordinary women’s lives and experiences around the family, marriage, kinship have not been a prime focus. In such circumstances, the question of women’s safety and autonomy, women’s labour and their challenges perhaps requires an examination taking into account its social and historical trajectory including the nature of relationship they share in the community. Women’s contribution in the local economy since ages has been substantial in the state’s political economy even during the heights of the insurgency movement and in contemporary Manipur. However, discrimination and violence against women within their kinship and in the community largely exists at a descriptive level as compared to the nature of agency they exercise while defending human rights violation both by state and non-state actors. It is in this context, the present work makes an attempt to understand the marginality of Female Sex Workers and how they operate including their experiences during the pandemic, the response of the society and search for their voices. This knowledge emerging from such a context is providing a specific understanding of space for work for women.

The everyday lives of FSWs happen somewhere so the place is essentially connected to the social life. As Abbott (1997) writes social facts are located, consequently it is challenging to understand social life without understanding the arrangement of particular social actors in particular social times and places. There are also the inequalities of places, and every place as Logan and Molotch (1987) explains is socially constructed with a history and a future and adds structure to their lives, place-based interests are at the heart of much collective and political action. Based on these insights, one may relate the emergence and the continuous existence of places like Delhi’s GB road, Kolkata’s Sonagachi, Mumbai’s Kamthipura. The labelling of these places with sex work is altogether another aspect that generates questions on space and social life. What I want to draw here is that space also generates epistemological questions of the ‘social’. The episteme also emerges from the everyday social interactions, availability of the space to articulate and convert the inherent desire for life and dignity into reality. In the last two decades, increasingly the collectives of sex workers are articulating their rights and demand for recognition of their work with formations of networks of sex workers in India and globally. So, the question of space as Entwisle (2007) exerts spatial as both people and place and as an approach that gives more agency to people, emphasizing that people make choices about where to live and move and that their movements can collectively result in changes in place characteristics and restructure their social networks. It is from this framework of space as both people and place, and an approach which gives agency to people, that I would be presenting the narrative of the lived experience of FSW to capture some aspects of her private and social life to unpack some of the layers such as the nature of the structural violence, systematic exclusion and their experience in work. In the light of their experience, the question on marginalization of women’s voice and the paucity of feminist questioning are compelling.

Sex Work, Ethnicity and Denial

The secretary of the NGO shared her expereince over the last 25 years of working with FSWs as a high-risk groups as part of the TI (Targetted Intervention) programme supported by MACS. In the HIV/AIDS project, issues concerning FSWs’ rights on safety, health, discrimination, livelihood, violence, addiction, alcoholism, issues of stigma etc. largely remain unaddressed. On the other hand, her organisation had been mediating when civil societies such as local Ema Lup[1], youth clubs, student bodies, certain cultural organisation raid hotels and restaurants in the name of moral policing. The NGO had to sensitize them explaining the circumstances under which they become FSW. The registered FSWs include married, unmarried, and from different communities – Meiteis, Pangal[2], different tribal and some non-Manipuri. She said:

…none in our society have concern, it looks like we are only one to care for them, you see some of the lups are not even willing to accept the fact that FSW exist in our society … to them it is a BLOT for the community … we have been working with them for over 25 years,  I hardly remember researchers working on lived experiences of FSW, except for HIV/AIDS or health related dimension, some on the subject of human trafficking… the context of sex-work in our state is quite different from the other states.

When the organisation had approached the Chief Minister of the State, he was not willing to speak even though he is approachable on other issues, except FSW. It was quite an eye-opener for her when one of the female Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA), was unwilling to discuss about FSW. She had once approached an advocate, a popular human rights defender to protect the right of a FSW who was entangled in a legal issue, the response was appalling – ‘What can be done for these sorts of people?’ She sighed ‘no other groups can me more vulnerable than them.’  She therefore persuaded the FSWs that they should stand up and speak of the injustices they face, but none was willing. She said, ‘One can proudly say she has HIV/AIDS, but not this work … certain section of the civil societies blames us that we are promoting sex-work.’ The hostility and cultural protectionism also come in the way in working with FSWs –

‘…our Meitei community by and large do not want to accept the fact that our women could be sex workers… they want to live in the belief that it is the women of the other communities – Pangal or any tribal women or Nepali who are engaging into this sort of work…I am so confused and worried about the continuity of our support once the HIV/AIDS project funds get phased out…we are also making them aware of this development of our project and preparing them to face what comes in the future…’

During my last visit I also met the concerned official of the Social Welfare Department. Interestingly, she shared about her preparation of an official reply to the concerned authority following a Supreme Court direction about the state’s initiative to ensure the rights, safety and security for Sex Workers during the COVID 19 pandemic. According to the department, programmes concerning sex workers are covered under the initiatives of the MACS as part of their intervention for high-risk groups and that the department as of now has no record of sex workers except for those cases of rescued victims of human trafficking which are covered under the UJJAWALA Scheme. As there are no records for FSWs, the department has no specific programmes for them. Even if there are schemes, the NGO says FSWs are not willing to submit their identity as sex workers due to the fear of stigma, they perhaps would retain their autonomy and agency and keep their work as secret.

Story of Randhoni: From brick kiln to Soliciting

She was forcefully eloped[3] and married when she was 16 to a man 10 years older. Within two years of her marriage, she began to work in a brick kiln near her locality before completing 45 days of her first delivery. Her in-laws left just her after the yumsengba[4]. She switched to stone and sand mining companies as it was nearer to her residence as she could feed the child in between the break unlike the previous location. Her experiences of working in these informal firms illustrate the vulnerabilities of women workers like lack of security, low wage and harassment at workplace in the informal sector. In her ten years of marriage, she had three children; the third child was forcefully impregnated. The pain, shame, anger she underwent of her husband’s demands were quite evident and as witnessed by their in-laws. During one of the regular check-ups on her third pregnancy, she came to know of her HIV positive status, which she got from her husband. He was not into drugs but seemed to have acquired it through his illicit relationships. She told me, ‘Eche[5]! On that day I felt my life is shattered and I was crying out loudly in the hospital corridor, went to call him as he was waiting outside the counseling office.

Her husband had threatened to kill her when he was planning for his second wife and that is how she left her in-laws house. With three children to feed, her meagre income as a labour could not afford the cost of baby food for her third child. Under such circumstances, she came across a woman who introduced her to sex work. She is now an experienced worker and a peer educator at an NGO working for rehabilitation of people living with HIV/AIDS. Following the separation of her husband with the second wife, he kept the third wife somewhere else.  Now, she is fighting for a legal divorce, but he is not responding despite summons of the family court. She told me –

Eche ! Earlier I was angry with his second wife and used to fight… but I realized that my husband had bluffed her, exactly the way he did when I was 16.  Even now, my in-law’s and his relatives want me to come back to stay with him. I asked them if anyone in the family is willing to take the responsibility that he would not abuse me anymore, then only I am ready to come…Eche! That is how I have shut them all… even if I miss them; I have a life as a FSW and to live for my children’s future …. My parents are not aware of my work; this secret is haunting me all the time.’

Outside her work, she is known by another identity, which is acceptable by the society. She participates in all social activities like any other women. So far, she has never been caught in raids. In my recent meeting after almost a year of the earlier interview, she gladly shares about her plot of land and the house she is building there. Her children are doing well in martial arts, and investing her energy on her children. She is now more of a peer educator on HIV/AIDS project. She now looks after her own parents as her brother could not afford to take care of them due to unavailability of livelihood during the pandemic. During our conversation, what struck me was the change from her earlier fear and hostility to articulating the contribution of sex workers in the society in strengthening the families by fulfilling the bodily hunger of men, which helps individuals gain a sense of confidence and well-being.

Story of Taruni: Fake Encounter strips

‘… sometimes I am amazed with what I have done in the earlier days of my work, the kind of clients that I used to fetch, the money I had earned and the places that I roamed…’ Taruni states. She is a gun survivor widow. Her husband was shot dead by 38th Assam Rifles, in a fake encounter case in 2007. She became a sex-worker in 2009 when she had no way out to feed her five children. Burdened with shocked on his sudden death, she began to work as labour in different places. Her personality being  cheerful and welcoming, her father-in-law and brother-in-law used to provoke her to return to her maiden home. To them she is not the type of woman who would care of her children but run away with another man. She said:

 ‘Eche! One man, who used to court me before my marriage, approached me to carry forward the relationship on hearing the news of my husband’s death. He approached me as a friend, but my in-laws point fingers on me calling names. From that time onward, I promised myself that I would never get married. If Mother Teressa can give up her entire life for thousands of children, why could not I sacrifice my life for my five children, my own blood. So, I told this man not to try to meet me. I continue my own struggle in the midst of these shocks, I was traumatized as no one even my own family member could understand me … even though they help me financially in between, I took the stand that I would not ask.’

In the journey for justice of her husband, she came across people who told her about loan facilities for livelihood support at the department of MOBC (Minorities and Other Backward Classes). There she met an official who assured the loan if she gives him company. This man then introduced her to many others. In time, she began to associate herself with many civil societies working for women’s empowerment, gun survivors / extra-judicial killings; she attended various capacity building trainings including legal awareness. These exposures have helped her in asserting the cases of violence against women in her locality in collaboration with the Lups and the district legal service authority. She now has the identity as an agent of human right defenders working on various local issues in her locality, but her identity of FSW poses a big threat. She does not dare to speak up for the rights and concerns of FSW.  Now, she just resorts to three regular customers in clandestine to supplement and support her family. She is now a peer educator in an NGO. She sometimes acts as madame to the other younger FSWs. Her dream is to educate her five children. Her first daughter is extremely good in studies and a topper in her class. She stays in a boarding school. She is concerned for one of her daughters who is not keen to study. She had received the compensation for the death of her husband, killed in a fake encounter by armed forces. Now she has built her house. Her strength is appreciated in the neighborhood as a hard working-woman, and as a result, she said, ‘… my in-laws do not dare to disown me from my husband’s property… people respect me for my courage to face the representative of the municipal body… and I will continue to fight for those women who are victims of violence.’

Story of Nirmala: Sexual assault to sex work

Nirmala with her smiling face said, ‘… from that moment I decided not to get married. I would take care of my family.’ She was bluffed when she was around 17 years by a man from her locality. He forced her to elope, forced sexual intercourse several times without her consent. She told, ‘Eche! I feel so lifeless and bleak, that repeated act made me feel queasy, but I never surrender to him. We never got married even after keeping me in confinement in one of his relative’s house for so many days.’ Besides sex-work, she is a street vendor selling vegetables and fruits in the periphery of Ema Market. She is also a peer educator at an NGO. She acts professionally with her clients. She is strict to all her siblings in terms of their discipline and education. She is the main earner in her family. She looks forward to gradually give up once her siblings are settled in their jobs. Her old mother, memory of her father and her siblings are everything for her. She lives for them. The secret of her work is the threat she feels like her other fellow workers.

Story of Nishi: Family Push to Limits

Nishi is in her advanced stage of AIDS staying at the shelter homes of the NGO. It all began after her HSLC (High School Leaving Certificate) board exam, when she came to help her ailing uncle admitted at RMC (Regional Medical College) now RIMS (Regional Institute of Medical Science), Imphal. While coming back from the hospital with a tiffin box, one of her cousin’s friend on the pretext of dropping home took her to his house. He locked her up in his house that evening; next morning, his mother declared they have eloped and so they would go to her house to inform her parents. She was very young and never had the courage to speak up. Her mother-in-law is the keep of a highly placed government official. Her husband was a drug addict, which she discovered much later. She has two children. One of them is staying with her mother-in-law now. Her second son stays alone and works as a labourer. They never accepted her second son. She was the second wife and a widow.  She said:

‘Ennou[6]! The problem with my mother-in-law is she always appease her son. He bluffed me and she supported it. She follows this appeasement scheme so that my husband never questions her status as a keep of a big officer… after his death; I return to my stepmother … one day my stepmother sent me to one of his far of cousin to help him out in harvesting. I was not aware that she took money from him to give him company. I was helpless. My father scolded her and after few months, he died. My father loved me… I then began to stay in hotel as FSW. I met this Eche of this NGO some years back. Then I landed here in this Shelter home … my life has been cursed.  I just keep praying for my two sons and have nothing much to share… what will I share, there is nothing to be proud of.’

The extreme form of life she has led indeed influenced me to write this verse title ‘Ungraceful Grace’ in her memory. She passed away; she was found death in the bathroom by the care taker of the shelter home.

I met her in one dingy office at BOC Imphal[7]


Working for PHLIV AIDS

Her sight feeds me peace and calm

In the midst of noise of the painted eyes and lips

Indeed, she was a Grace to the place


She is a partner in my research

We had long chats mostly recalling

Memories perturbed her

By mischief, pain, hurt and love

Indeed, she was a Grace to her dad


Forced marriage as second wife of a drug addict

Arranged by the mother-in-law to silence

Her son for her mischievous affair as a concubine

The boy gave HIV to the first and the second

Indeed, she was a Grace to their indulgence


Homeless widow, in-law snatched her child

Stepmother dragged her for money

Soon followed auctions of her long hair

Smooth skin, beauty, simplicity

Indeed, she was a Grace to the pimps


In the midst of tears and laughter

She asked ‘Nungaibro eigi warise?[8]

Nangna tammibaduga mari leinaabara?’[9]

Aghast! Her words dumbstrucked me

Indeed, she was a Grace to my study


Was it her spirit that I rang up that dingy office?

Deafen me for a while as I stood in the noisy street

Happy child with dad in kindergarten

Pictures on the wall of my memory

Moments she most cherished as she once told

I prayed for her soul to rest in peace

Yet, she’s the fume of ungrace of our despicable lots


Story of Jerina: Fake Adoption

‘…my adoptive parents began to mistreat me after they got their biological child …started working at a very young age at Manipuri Basti in Guwahati where I came to know that my parents live in Manipur… in my desire to go back to my parents I left my adoptive parents in Guwahati…During the journey I encounter a man who empathize with my situation and I fall in love and we got married and have a child also…while my husband had migrated for labour in some other districts…my in-laws chased me out and I was at my advanced pregnancy…I came across a woman who introduce me to an NGO and started living in the shelter home…lately I came to know that my husband is into drugs and left his house as well…now I lived with one of my friend who is in the same work and I looked forward to work, earn and saved money for myself…my child has been adopted by a good family and I am happy for her.’

One of the fellow sex workers shared Jerina’s case where she was sexually assaulted by gang of men and she herself was not aware that she had conceived. She had taken some contraceptive pills after the incident of sexual assault and she had miscarriage. Her fellow workers helped her and the NGO took her to the hospital. As she needed intensive care, the NGO asked her consent to find her parents, since then she has escaped from the hospital. The NGO workers and her fellow friends expressed their concerns for her health and life during the pandemic.

Story of Anjana: In search of one’s own space

Anjana married at a young age of 15 and got a child within a year. The locality often taunt her saying ‘Look! A child mother taking care of another child!’ The father-in-law was firm that his son should begin to earn and support his family; and as her husband was not willing to work, she had to go out along with the local elders to sell vegetables in the Ima Keithel (women’s market). As a street vendor, she stands out because of her very young age. In the meantime, she experienced physical assault by her husband and often she used to take shelter at her maternal uncle’s place who resides nearer to her residence than her own maiden home. The physical assault, in time, got intensified. On hindsight she could relate the anger of her father-in-law ‘…that time I was so young and I did not understand why my father-in-law told during one of those brawls stating that my parents never bother to help me in my struggle…I was told to leave home if I want to but I had to leave behind my young son…my mother-in-law was very good but her words were of no significance….’ She, after bearing the tension for quite some months, she returned to her own parents. ‘…my two brothers were doing well in their business…while I was at home, I live a life of abundance but there was no freedom… I was not allowed to go outside…that was about four to five years of my life with hardly any friends and they never try to empathize my love for my child…I used to make excuses and visit my uncle’s place just to meet my son…I met him a couple of times…I remember the last time I met him, he does not recognise me…. those were one of the most disturbing days of my life…nobody really cares my feeling nor understand me…’

Her mother left her when she was about 4 years old. She left the family unable to bear the tantrums of her father as her father being the only son out of six daughters, none dares to scold him. She sometimes visited her mother who has now another family whenever she visits her uncle’s residence. When her brothers came to know about her visit to her mother, she was warned not to visit her and if she wants to meet her, she should leave the house.

‘…I was all alone, my father was then an old fellow, my brothers do not bother much of what he says…my sister-in-law and my brothers were a team and I felt so left out … just living a life of a death… no one was there to talk…so decided to go and stay with my mother…but my step-father-did not like the idea…so my mother arrange for a rented place nearby and I began to stay there and began to sell vegetables at Ima Keithel…as I was very young and the market was full of women much elder to me, I request my mother and engage her for the business with my investment. Business being very new to her, she could not manage and lost whatever money I had invested…’

She sought help from one of her friends and was introduced to a senior woman to find some work for her. She was shocked to know that the woman turned out a madam who supplies sex workers in Imphal city. She confronted her friend for sending her to her aunt knowing well what kind of work she would be assigned to.

‘…after much struggle I approached another friend who is into trading of items from Moreh… I was under pressure to stay away from my mother as my step-father kept on scolding my mother for getting close with me…I spent few months doing some odd jobs and managing a kiosk of miscellaneous items…my friend then planned to leave for another place and I had nowhere to go…so I called up my friend to talk again to her aunty madam…that is how I became a sex worker a couple of years ago…after few years of work, I have also built my network stronger and I have also become a madam…I engage myself into many types of work not just sex work…I often partner with another man in the business of organizing private gambling parties…’

From a child mother to a madam, her journey has been a lonely one. Perhaps life’s experience has taught her enough to become a successful madam at a young age of 30 and find her place she can call her own. She shared how she operates during the pandemic, about her negotiations with her customers. Earlier before the pandemic, the normal charge was Rs. 500 per job and it has now shot up to Rs. 2000 to Rs. 3000 depending on the job and person. She is absolutely professional and firm about the price and she manage to get her cut. In lighter note she says,’…men are crazy, some of them would tag the price according to the appearance, their body size, some like to see the back of the girls…what not Eche…what gives them the kick is something very unpredictable…as long as we are paid well and not cheated….it is all fine…’

Story of Roja: Daughter’s aren’t supposed to return

‘… on the first day of my work, I went for a movie at Paona Bazaar after receiving a payment of Rs. 500. I got frozen when he groped me, however seeing my fear, the man let me go. I immediately turned down the next assignment. For the next three months I managed to work all sort of wage labour – domestic work, at quarrying, brick kiln but could hardly make the ends meet. Having three children to feed and rent to pay, I had to go back to my friend and since then I have become a full-time sex worker for the last two years and now, I am 40…’       

She got married at the age of 15, which was a forced elopement. ‘… I did not want to get married but my would-be-in-laws pleaded to save their son’s life…and at home my parents told me that once daughter elope, they are not supposed to return home but married them off.’  When they got married, her husband was a home guard, but the combined effect of habitual drinking and smoking weed led to the development of some mental health issue. She substituted her husband’s duty at the residence of those police officers doing all their household chores. This is how she had protected his job and he is still in his job but with a second wife. In addition to physical assault by her husband, she was also tormented by the instigations and torture of the in-laws. She often returned to her parental home in extreme situations and every time she returned, her husband came to take her back. In the meantime, she began to engage into trading of miscellaneous items. When her second child was born, her husband accused her of having illicit relationship with people around the locality and went to the extent of charging her for an illicit affair with his own brother. She had to again return to her parents. The parents advised her not to go back if she wants to have a dignified life and that they will support her to build her life again. ‘…I told my mother, even if he is violent and torturing me after all he is my husband and I have to believe that he will become a better person…mang anisuba pamde (I do not want to have two different families in my death ceremony)’. Thus, she went back with her husband when he came to take her. This time the parents had warned her not to come back if she faces any problem and to manage on her own. At times, she had to spend nights sleeping at the veranda of neighboring residence as she could not bear the physical assault of the husband and that she could not resort help from her parents. During the third pregnancy, the intensity of domestic violence increased and somehow, she took courage to return to her parents as she was in her third trimester.  She gave birth to the third child at her parental house where they performed the swasti puja – birth rituals. After a few years, she came out of her parental home after few instances of skirmishes with her brother’s wife. She then took a rented place with all kind of odd jobs to meet the ends. She took a rent at the Ima Keithel (women’s market) where she faced certain problems and could not sustain the business, then resorted to vegetable vending on the street of Ima Keithel, then worked in food joints and as domestic worker. Eventually, life’s course made her meet a friend who inducted her into sex work.

Her encounter with different sort of customers in her work has shaped her ability to negotiate and be firm with her own set of rules. She shares how police officials have respected her as she never bargains nor bluff any of her customers but rather request them politely to give. In the last two years she had not come across any raid either by any local groups or by police. During the pandemic, it is her close customers who are helping her to bear her rent, and her daily needs. She uses mobile technology for closed customers but never indulge in any form which will reveal her identity. She has three regular customers – all these three individuals are into good business. These three customers’ demands are specific as they do not go to hotel, but arrange their own place. They are extremely careful of their secret indulgence being residents of a small town. So, they make concrete plans for the meeting. They will deliver her edibles at a local market place nearby her rented place. The landlord was doubtful about her work and the two had a cordial conversation where she convinced him that she does not work in the same locality. Moreover, as she is staying with her second husband and two unmarried children and that she lives in the locality like any other women, the landlord empathizes her situation. Everyone in the locality takes her to be a hardworking woman struggling with all sorts of odd jobs. She says, ‘…she needs a husband to keep the family’s life and prestige intact…’ Sometimes her mother comes and stays at her rented place. ‘…I am saving every penny to buy a piece of land and build a small house, something I can say as my own……I heard my brother is trying to sell a piece of her parental property. If he sells, I will go and take money…otherwise I will not ask any money.’

Snacking and conversations:

Snacking and conversations become a regular affair during my visits to the centre. The contents of the conversation were wrapping my conscience and senses. In one of those conversations one of the FSW said, ‘I am also a woman, you are also a woman doing study on women’s struggle, I cannot speak openly about myself and there is no one who would speak for us.’ This reflects a certain kind of a social erasure that indicate what issues deserve social space and the non-recognition of an issue like sex work is a social concern. The loud chatting and giggles in this homelike space includes conversation of another sex worker who experience sexual violence from the customers, the issue of how police want free service from them, personal grudges emerging from competition amongst themselves, concerning family problems largely focusing on their children and relatives.

`One of the FSW shared her experience of a religious group which came to raid one of the hotels. One of the members of the group turned out to be one of her customers; everyone laughed out at the way she narrated the incident. She told,

‘…the moment I saw him, I rushed to him and loudly asked him how he wanted to have it this time…I acted to pull up my cloth and he ran away…you see they are all hypocrites…they all need physical fulfillment…many of them are regular visitors, but they act as if they are really innocent and come to raid us…why is it that they never discuss the problems we have undergone before we become sex workers…now we feeding our families and they want to raid us? I don’t believe them; I defy and I will continue my work…. after all, at the end of the day it is me who face the demands of my children not them.’

They shared their experiences of how representatives from different religions or ethnic communities often raid the hotels and places where they operate, however the frequency of this raid has reduced considerably at present. This sort of incident reflects the unchallenged hegemony of important stakeholders in our society.

They also shared certain experiences of other sex workers whom they know; unfortunate incidents such as gang rape, experiences of cheating specially when there are certain demands of visiting places outside Imphal city, sexual assault in moving vehicles leaving them alone in far off places, incidents of aggressive negotiations with customers concerning charges, waste of time, sex positions etc. are also shared while snacking.

Women’s Labour and Sex Work

The above narratives of the FSWs reflect the plight of women working in the informal sector in the state. The wages are not simply enough to support their family. What is seen in the lived experiences of the FSW is clearly reflected in the India Wage Report (2018), a study conducted by the ILO. Even though the gender wage gap is indicating a narrowing trend over a period of time across states, industries and occupations, Rustagi (2005) highlights some studies indicating substantial wage disparity across levels of education, types of unemployment, industries, locations that place women workers in a disadvantages position. India wage report (2018) indicated an analysis of a significant proportion of the wage gap which is not explained by productive characteristics as a result of which it often is attributed to discrimination against female workers in the Indian labour market. Moreover, the report also mentions that the distribution of wages is highly skewed with the vast majority of workers earning low wages. It mentions four Northeast States including Manipur for having the uniform minimum wage lower than the recommended rate of Rs. 137 in 2013. Further, as per the record of the Ministry of Women and Child Development there are 533 functional creches under the Rajiv Gandhi National Creche Scheme (RGNCS) in the state. However, the experiences of the FSWs working in the unorganized sector tell a different story. Full day child care for children of women working in the unorganized sector which employs the highest number of workers in the country is still a steep challenge in the country. In this kind of a scenario, sex work offers a remunerative opportunity for women bread winners. This also reflects the existence of a thriving body labour industry in the state and understanding the political economy of this form of labour and its emergence is beyond the scope of the study. The lived experiences certainly are evidence that the question of feeding the family, educating the children and to live is a far serious issue than the question of morality. The question of whether the state is securing the right to life through provision of a standard wage for a sustainable livelihood especially for women is critical and needs to prioritize measures.

Sex Work as a form of profession is considered to be the oldest profession in many societies. However, in the case of Manipur, the sex work in exchange of money is relatively a new phenomenon. Looking at the etymology of the word Kashubi Khanba which translates sex work, it is derived from the Hindi and Bengali word Kasabi (write as कसबी in Hindi and কসবী in Bengali). There is paucity in the history of sex work in Manipur, however, one of the dictionaries mentions that perhaps the profession may have begun to exist either with the Bengali Bamon (Brhamin) who arrived in the state during the time of Viashnavisation of the state or may have flourished with increased militarization in post-independence times. In its history, one finds mention of concubines, practice of both polygamy and polyandry, and even Taloi (liberated committed lovers who live together without marriage). There is a need to understand gender equation, the making and unmaking of gender in the socio-politico historical trajectory as it is pivotal to understand the nature and scope of changes in the social structure. Undoubtedly the economy of the state being an intrinsic part of the neoliberal expansion, one also witnesses the emergence of sex work in Imphal city and all major towns of Manipur. As a society, the collective dialogue of whether it should be considered as a profession or not seems to be out of the question, what we witness is the practice of moral policing and mob justice, attacking the persons who are caught in the act. However, it may be noted that incidents of such raids by certain sections of the civil society have decreased considerably.

Reinscribing Patriarchal Control

Some of the statements made by the FSWs in the above narratives like – ‘Daughter’s aren’t supposed to return’, ‘mang anisuba pamde (I do not want to have two different families in my death ceremony)’, ‘they (my brothers) never try to empathize my love for my child’, forced elopement, widow remarriage as anti-family, husbands are needed to keep family’s life and prestige intact, polygamy and loose marriage practice are phenomena through which women internalize patriarchy and normalize it in their vocabulary.

Within the circle of their work the FSWs exercise an ample level of autonomy and agency in terms of exerting their ownership of their work, their terms and conditions; paradoxically on the other side is their silence and inability to oppose the grip and control of the family members. This minimal sense of agency which they exercise perhaps makes no sense to an outsider of the FSW circle but to her it gives life. This paradox depicts a unique experience of women and how their experiences are informed by the socio-cultural dynamicity of the place. The narratives suggest an intelligible set of characteristics where they exercise their autonomy to take charge of their life and family by exercising their agency to navigate their life in Imphal city through building network, collaborating with different individuals, discharging their work in the midst of an extremely volatile socio-cultural dynamics prone to moral policing and mob justice. This manner of collectivization comes naturally to the FSWs which perhaps is informed by the social relations, values and practices of the place. However, these same individuals are silent on the violence their husbands and in-laws have perpetrated; they perhaps internalize these forms of violence as experiences of women’s everyday life. This is the complexity of the patriarchy that is inscribed to the people of the place. How one could possibly overlook the question of violence by justifying the freedom in terms of mobility, choosing their life partners, freedom to take up education, absence of dowry killings etc. as marker of women being more empowered as compared to women in other parts of India.

The statement made by one of the FSW – ‘I am also a woman, you are also a woman doing study on women’s struggle, I cannot speak openly about myself and there is no one who would speak for us’ is profound. When she said ‘no one to speak for us’; perhaps there are certain sections of society who take out protest to demand justice for violence against women in different instances. However, the violence in terms of the dispossession they experience has no currency for any protest or public discussion. By not speaking of the stories of how they become sex workers, by not acknowledging how they are supporting their lives including their family members by exercising their agency – a certain form of story is being erased from the collective memory. This erasure fosters patriarchy in our social system and social relations.

Unspoken Violence Distorting Narratives on Violence

The NFHS 2005 recorded 38.9 percentage of women between the age group of 15-49 experienced physical or sexual violence in the domestic space. Local dailies coverage on incidents of violence against women is also on the rise. On 26 November, 2011 Nagaland Post published a report of sexual assault against 22 women including 16 minor girls below the age of 16 years in Manipur during COVID-19. One may point out some of the sensational cases that drew the public attention in the last few years – death case of Babysana, muder of Rekha Devi, gang rape of Mayang Imphal Thambalnu Case – the public in large numbers carried out sit-in protest and rallies demanding justice. This protest does not sustain for long as the cases involved powerful people; after few weeks of protest, even the Joint Action Committees organize to demand justice for these cases gets dissolved from the public space with whatsoever no explanation. Thinking about crime against women especially involving powerful people, I remember the incident of the rape and murder of a young non-Manipuri college girl. As a child, I remember the neighborhood silent about the crime, perhaps they knew who the perpetrators were. Local star singer Sanaton’s song ‘Sanjenthongi Thongkhada’ based on this incident became a super hit song. Perhaps the common people kept singing to heal themselves; years later I came to know that the perpetrators of the crime were shot dead by a certain insurgent group. Even today, when I hear the song in Youtube, it gives me goosebumps. The same song has come out with many remixed versions by young singers of the place, the memory of violence persists in the song and the state continues to remain a silent spectator.

The point I want to draw here is the violence that the FSWs lived through as reflected in their narratives suggest a culture of silence that holds them back from challenging it. It may also be noted how FSWs while snacking share incidents of violence which the other FSWs’ experiences but not themselves. It seems like these women have internalized the acts of violence. Since they have normalized the acts of violence by their own family members, perhaps they are skeptical to speak of the violence they experience during their work. Perhaps they have also internalized that all acts of violence against a sex worker is intrinsically a consequence of their work itself but not the conditions under which they work. Here the violence in both the contexts signifies the complexity of the act of not speaking up, which contrive the question that ‘unspoken violence is violence and violation of the fundamental right’.

Sustaining the Pandemic

The FSWs from their struggle of life have learned the effective currency of their bodies. Even during the pandemic, they receive calls for different services and the mobile technology has helped in their transactions. They have also increased the charges of the services. Further, it is the relations they shared with their special customers who have provided monetary and material support. One of the FSW tells, ‘…see after all we belong to the same place, our customers also sought help from us when they are in their problem…so in times of our problems when earning is low, they also support us in so many ways…’ The FSW network and the NGO also stood to extend support. Some of the concerns during the pandemic which they have shared are certain cases of sexual assault, customers bluffing them by turning out in groups while the service was meant for an individual; and their reluctance to approach the police.

Conclusion: the elephant’s tusk

What comes out clearly from the narratives of the lived experiences of the FSW and people working with them is the agency and autonomy they exercise while operating their work is limited in that secret space between them and their clients; the earnings from sex work is by far sustainable in terms of supporting their family and converting their dreams like owning a house into reality. The underpaid wages in the informal sector in the state, the failure of economy to generate sustainable and meaningful livelihood and abysmally poor working condition violating the provisions to support women workers are widely reflected in the narratives. Along with these underlying factors combined with the discrimination and violence they faced in their families, push them to sex work. Under such circumstances one makes a choice to sex work. Certainly, in their circle, FSWs exercise their autonomy and agency but the threat of the self-style moral policing groups representing the societal moral consciousness, stigma and victimization by society including family members is stripping of their dignity. The struggle of the FSWs and the manner of exercising their agency, how they operate their network and extend support for each other corresponds to the manner in which women of various traditional Lups operate against social issues like alcoholism, defending human rights and state’s atrocity against women’s body except for the type of work FSWs do and the questions of morality attached with their work.

The fact that sex work is a recent phenomenon amongst the indigenous peoples of Manipur and its historicized understanding enables us to see the coloniality of power in a capitalist model which not only creates categories like sex workers and push women into it, but also produces the narratives of choice and contrive a conflict of morality vs right to work, but not the flaw in the economic system. This scenario allows obscurity to prevail and unveiling it is the task of decolonisation. So, the elephant’s tusk is not just for show, but is also used for defense and digging. Like the tusk is meant for defense and digging, the FSWs’ lived experiences is a site for resistance to unveil how structural violence comes to be embodied as personal experience; the question of the inability to speak up the violence one encounters is in itself a violence and violation of the fundamental right. Moreover, the question of space for work of the FSWs set up the context to redraw the issues of violence, dispossession and to dwell on histories of women’s work participation, their evolving work conditions in contemporary times. The civil society ecosystems and the society can no longer remain silent and blind; like the tusk, they need to raise questions on the cracks in the informal sectors, the welfare mechanisms, the efficacy of the implementation of the laws against violence against women to mention a few as reflected in the narratives of the FSWs.


Abbott, Andrew. 1997. Of Time and Space: The Contemporary Relevance of the Chicago School. Social Forces, Vol 75 (4): pp. 1149-1182.

Entwisle, Barbara. 2007. Putting people into place. Demography, Vol 44 (4): 687-703

International Labour Organization. 2018. India Wage Report: Wage policies for decent work and inclusive growth. India: ILO

Logan, R, John and Molotch, L, Harvey. 1987. Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rustagi, Preet. 2005. Understanding gender inequalities in wages and incomes in India. The Indian Journal of Labour Economics, Vol. 48 (2): pp. 319-334.



[1]  Lup – group; Ema Lup – Local Mother’s/women’s groups including the Meira Paibis.

[2]  Pangal –Muslim of Manipur

[3]      Elope – an accepted practice leading to marriage among the Meiteis.

[4]      Yumsengba – a ritual of the Meiteis in which only after twelve days of delivery, the mother is now considered

pure and can enter the kitchen and other space in the house

[5]      Eche – elder sister.

[6] Ennaou means younger sister.

[7] Name of a place in Imphal, Manipur

[8]Nungaibro eigi warise? – Do you like my story?

[9]Nangna tammibaduga mari leinaabara? – Is it relevant with your study?


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