The other silence breakers: women in the war on drugs

Today we see an increase in the number of
women around the world actively taking on leadership roles and advocacy
positions to use their voice to speak up for other women.

lead Donetsk Ukraine September 2013. Women and their children at a Light of Hope shelter in Poltava Ukraine.© Yuri Kozyrev/NOOR/Redux.The proliferation
of current feminist movements, such as the Women’s March and the viral trend of
#MeToo, call attention to the mistreatment of women and other forms of gender
inequalities.

But there is one particular group of women who you won’t see
widely supported at any protest or trending on social media: women in the war
on drugs.

Routinely silenced by stigma due to their drug use or
involvement in drug-related economies, these women face some of the gravest health
and human rights violations across the globe. These are the women with few
allies, who often have limited or no access to supportive services and have no mainstream
platforms to express their experienced injustices.

Decades
of the war on drugs have imposed countless social, health, and economic costs
on women. Many drug policies and programs often overlook or outright ignore
necessary women-specific needs such as, providing reproductive health or
addressing gender-based violence. These unaddressed needs are further compounded
by stigma and criminalization. As a result, drug-related harms among women are often
significantly exacerbated.

Non-violent drug convictions incarcerate
women at higher rates than any other
crime worldwide. In
many European countries, the average
HIV prevalence
is 50% higher amongst women who use drugs than it is among
men who do the same. In addition, drug-involved women
face increased
risks
of physical and sexual violence, even in criminal justice settings.
Similarly, the lack of consideration for women’s needs creates significant
barriers in access
to treatment or healthcare.

On
the rare occasion that women are mentioned, it is related to drug use during
pregnancy. As a recent
prime example
, President Trump praised a police officer and his wife for
adopting an infant exposed to
drugs in the womb at the 2018 State of the Union address. The needs of the
biological mother such as housing, treatment, and prenatal care were never even
mentioned. For women in similar circumstances, punitive responses such as
incarceration and the loss of parental rights are often the only forms of
intervention.  Supportive services such
as healthcare, harm reduction, or treatment are often nonexistent.  

While extensive measures must be made to
lessen the numerous harms imposed on women, leading advocates are making headway by simply starting to include
women impacted in the conversation by offering an outlet for them to express
their unique perspectives and needs.

The early years of the drug policy reform
movement was primarily led by men, yet today we are seeing an increase in the
number of women around the world actively taking on leadership roles and advocacy
positions to use their voice to speak up for other women.

A new provocative photo essay by the
Washington Office of Latin America (WOLA), for example, portrays the stories of
six women from Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, and Costa Rica who represent the
alarming rate of women imprisoned in Latin America for minor, non-violent drug
offenses.

“Many of these women are single mothers, live in poverty, and
enter the drug trade out of desperation or coercion. Their incarceration also
impacts their children, who are often times left without proper care. When
these women leave prison, their criminal record makes it difficult for them to
get a job, pushing these women further into a cycle of poverty and desperation,”
explained Collette Youngers, senior fellow at WOLA.

Youngers underscores that, “public officials must understand
the devastating effect that these misguided drug policies have on women and
their families. Incorporating the voices of affected communities in the reform
of drug policies is essential.”

In
the US, one of the few organizations that recognize the unique risks for
pregnant women who use drugs is the National
Perinatal Association
(NPA). NPA acknowledges that treating perinatal drug
use as a crime is counterproductive to maternal and prenatal health. They are
also deeply committed to supporting the voices of pregnant people by elevating
parents and self-advocates in the public sphere. NPA actively recruits parents with
lived experiences to participate in conferences and offers financial
scholarships
for their dedicated time.

“The most important
of part of NPA’s interdisciplinary efforts are the voices of the parents and
families with lived experiences – they are the true experts in understanding
the gaps in services and treatment barriers for pregnant people who use drugs,”
says Joelle Puccio, Registered Nurse and chair member of the Perinatal
Substance Use Program.

In Indonesia, the inclusion
of women who inject drugs were considered a significant advance in a recent community-based
participatory research study. Conducted by the University of Oxford and the Indonesia
Drug User Network, the study
included more than 700 women who inject drugs. The study’s goal was to better
understand the needs and accessibility to services for women who inject drugs. Research
findings were used to mobilize and empower drug-using women to play a greater
role in advocating for gender-responsive HIV programming and policies.

Lead researcher,
Claudia Stoicescu noted, “Approximately 90% of the research team was made up of women
who actively or formerly use drugs, including in management positions. Their
meaningful involvement was an essential aspect
of this project as well as the larger female drug user community.”

The momentum to support women impacted by the
drug war cannot be siloed within the drug policy reform movement. All leading feminists activists groups can
offer support by using their existing platforms to challenge injustices and
further elevate the advocacy efforts of women impacted by the global war on
drugs.

Follow Kasia Malinowska on Instagram where she will
highlight the voices of other leading women drug policy reformers throughout
the month of March.

Sideboxes

'Read On' Sidebox: 

Follow Kasia Malinowska on Instagram where she will
highlight the voices of other leading women drug policy reformers throughout
the month of March.

Sidebox: 

A new provocative photo essay by the
Washington Office of Latin America (WOLA) portrays the stories of
six women from Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, and Costa Rica.

Rights: 
CC by NC 4.0