The idea of ‘drugs’ and ‘drug addiction’ generally creates an image of a man lying on a pavement oblivious to the world or rich teenage boys with humongous amounts of cash at their disposal enjoying expensive shots of drugs. Though the class aspect of drug abuse is captured in our picturisation, we often fail to understand this from a gendered aspect of the drug addiction. Why is there not enough literature or even interventions for female drug addicts? And just because there is largely a blind eye turned towards female drug addicts, it does not mean that substance abuse among females does not exist at all.
Recently, a popular news channel reported how a mother in Amritsar chained her daughter to the bed to prevent her from taking drugs. As unbelievable it may have sounded, it was just one story that got reported from the many others under the radar because of the lack of media and academia attention to the problem. A 2018 study conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs Crime (UNODC) acknowledged that abuse among female drug addicts is particularly hard to capture. The problem lies in the under representation of female drug addicts in most surveys as well as the limited treatment facilities available to them. For instance, Punjab (often seen as the hub of drug addicts in India) has 31 government-run de-addiction centres. Of them, there is only one de-addiction center dedicated exclusively to female drug addicts. It was however, only as recently as in March 2019, the state government had ordered for separate women-only wards in the de-addiction centres, so as to mitigate the problem of inaccessibility to healthcare by women addicts.
However, a double-jeopardy stares in the face of the female drug addicts, similar to the double-oppression of women underlined in the “Second Sex” by feminist writer Simon De Beauvoir. These oppressive layers operate based on gender and the socio-legal policies and system.
The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime(UNODC)’s World Drug Report: Booklet 5 on Women and Drugs published in 2018 shows that female drug addicts constitute one-third of drug users globally and one-fifth of the global estimated number of people who inject drugs (PWID). Female drug addicts who inject drugs have a greater vulnerability than men to HIV, hepatitis C and other blood-borne infections due to syringe sharing.
Magnitude of substance abuse in India (2019) by Ministry of Social Justice And Empowerment is a government report which is an output from the project “National Survey on Extent and Pattern of Substance Use in India”. The report acknowledges that people affected by drug use are one of the most marginalised and under-served populations. Imagine being a female drug addict now, in the midst of an already marginalised and under-served population.
Further, there is considerably more stigma around female drug addicts than male drug addicts. Female drug addicts are considered doubly deviant by the society. While male addicts are considered deviant, courtesy their criminalisation, female drug addicts apart from being seen as criminals for taking drugs, are also vilified for transgressing their socially accepted role of a care-giver, again becoming a factor to in their double marginalisation.
If this was not enough, the majority of ‘known women drug addicts’, are generally involved in the occupation of sex work. The only female government-run Nakiran De-addiction Centre in Punjab situated in Kapurthala, runs a pilot program for female drug users (FDU). The project focuses on a comprehensive health and rights-based response for female drug addicts and aims to achieve a holistic ‘harm reduction’ rather than just ‘de-addiction’. This project has focused mainly on sex workers and why they do not want a de-addiction program to begin with. According to them, taking drugs makes their work easier. Most women who come forward for the harm reduction treatments are women who are sex workers. Their line of work makes them susceptible to drug abuse. The relation between sex workers and drug use is bidirectional. Prostitution is seen as a cause as well as an effect for women to use drugs.
Other female drug addicts who came to fight addictions at the Centre at Kapurthala were mostly from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Trauma and difficult childhoods in the past were seen in almost all cases. This argument provides a solid ground that the socio-cultural and psycho-economic consequences in the cases of female drug addicts are often ignored.
The pandora’s box that women’s substance abuse opens up is something neither the governments nor the society want to address. Further, the spillages that taking this issue to the public forum can have on the society make all the stake-holders, including the women, to keep mum and maintain the veil of secrecy. The denial is shaped by both psychological and social factors of the drug users.
The scant literature on female drug addicts shows that, Indian women are more vulnerable to adverse physical and social consequences of substance abuse. The identification of female drug addicts by health care professionals is hindered by the stereotypes around them. This shunning then closes doors for dialogue and necessary interventions and strategies. The need of the times is to recognise substance abuse in females not in a vacuum, but in a contextual, empathetic and non-patriarchal systemic approach, so that help reaches them when its time.
A female drug addict in India is in a complex psycho-social, political and economic spiral which, along with the societal vilification she faces, does little to improve her condition. Though there are governmental policies and programmes both at the national and state level, most of them are gender-blind. The need for a gender-sensitive policy is important for systemic changes at all levels which can lead to a better world where female drug addicts are seen as patients and not as morally corrupt societal misfits.
Featured Image Source: The Hindu