On the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which is celebrated globally on 25 November every year, our Office is pleased to share with you the speech given by Cristina Albertin, UNODC Representative for South Asia, on the launch of the report titled "Female Drug Users and Female Regular Sex Partners of Male Drug Users in Bangladesh" in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Bangladesh: Unveiling the hidden tale of women affected by drugs

Violence against women and girls is a grave violation of human rights. It can include physical, sexual, psychological and economic abuse, which cuts across boundaries of age, race, culture, wealth and geography. Globally, up to six out of every ten women experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. This can result in a wide range of physical, mental, emotional and reproductive health problems.

Violence against women is rampant in the South Asian region, which houses nearly 40 per cent of the total number of people living in poverty globally.  A number of socio-cultural, political, economic, and legal factors in the region combine to leave women vulnerable to violence. The problem is more pronounced when it comes to women who are drug users and/or are victims of HIV/AIDS due to drug use or their partners who use drugs. The stigma associated with drug use and HIV /AIDS makes women a silent and hidden group, who invariably are unable to reach out for their rights to information, treatment and support.

To throw further light on this issue, UNODC in collaboration with the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research (ICDDR), Bangladesh conducted a Rapid Situation and Response Assessment (RSRA) on "Female Drug Users and Female Regular Sex Partners of Male Drug Users in Bangladesh". The findings of the study were released today as part of the programme 'Launching of UNAIDS agenda for Women, Girls and Gender Equality', which was held at the Shawkat Osman Auditorium in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The Honourable State Minister, Dr. Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, Government of Bangladesh was the Chief Guest at the ceremony.

The report was released by Cristina Albertin, the UNODC Representative for South Asia. The following speech given by her presents an overview of the report's findings and underscores the need for collective action by all stakeholders to address the  concerns of women drug users and women who are partners of drug users.

Good Afternoon.

I am very pleased to be here in Dhaka to be able to speak to you about a serious matter that deserves our attention, especially on the occasion of this International Day of Elimination of Violence against Women: women, drug use and HIV.

Women are the hidden face when it comes to HIV and drug use, especially, injecting drug use. Women are affected either as injecting drug users and/or as regular sex partners/spouses of men who inject drugs. Both groups are highly vulnerable in their own ways and are at increased risk of HIV and STIs.

Women who use drugs also often sell sex to support their drug taking habit. They are under the dual risk of HIV through unsafe sex and unsafe injection practices.

Women who are regular sex partners of men who use drugs, in a majority do not use drugs themselves. In South Asia many of these silent wives have become infected with HIV through their husbands.

Drug users and people living with HIV face stigma and discrimination. Nevertheless, women using drugs are more stigmatized, when compared to men. They are disliked and marginalized. This makes them invisible, a hidden population that is hard to reach.

Researchers and statisticians do not count them, decision-makers do not understand them and finally also service providers do ignore them.

To bridge the knowledge gap, UNODC together with the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh undertook a study that we present today on "Female Drug Users and Female Regular Sex Partners of Male Drug Users in Bangladesh" .

The study was undertaken within the AusAID funded regional South Asian project "Prevention of Transmission of HIV among Drug Users in SAARC Countries", a joint initiative between UNODC, UNAIDS and WHO with the Department of Narcotics Control (DNC), Ministry of Home Affairs and the National AIDS/STD Programme, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of Bangladesh as Nodal Agencies.

This report provides information from selected localities of urban and rural Bangladesh. It is based on a rapid assessment of female drug users and female regular sex partners of male drug users.

Data from this study show that these women are under immense pressure;

  • They are often victims of violence from their husbands
  • They have to support the family as well as the drug-taking habit of their male partners
  • They are shunned by the society
  • They do not have access to information or services.

Of the 176 female drug users interviewed, most women are young, around 28.6 years.  More than half were selling sex. More than half of them smoke heroin and some 15.9 per cent reported to at least have once injected drugs. Almost half of these had started (46.4 per cent) drug use directly by injecting, while others had switched from smoking to injecting.

Female drug users reported risky sexual practices, i.e. selling sex or non-use of condoms. Regarding treatment, only about a quarter of the female drug users (24.4%) said that they had ever undergone detoxification and rehabilitation treatment in their lifetime. The main reasons for not having undergone treatment included

  • no facilities available nearby (38.3%),
  • the belief not to require any treatment (32.3%)
  • the inability to pay (24.1%).

The study also interviewed 312 female regular sex partners of male drug users. Also, these women are young ( 29.2 years), many of them married and with children. 11.5% of those children reported to have dropped out of school, mostly because of a drug using family member. Also, in this group, a considerable number of women sold sex (27.7)

None of them knew that their husband/regular male sex partner had used drugs at the time of marriage or starting their relationship.

Some of these women were very angry with their husbands who often beat and mistreated them in different ways. Moreover, society in general shunned them because of their partners' drug-taking habits. These women wanted harsh punishment for drug users.

Reaching women affected by the drug epidemic is a challenge. Once reached, providing and maintaining services that meet their special needs is a similarly great challenge.

Harm reduction services in Bangladesh, like most countries in the region target male drug users. The few outlets that are available for women mirror the services available for men. This is not only true for Bangladesh, but also for other South Asian countries.

In light of this, UNODC and Governments attach increasing importance to reaching out to this hidden, invisible, hard-to-reach group of women.  In Bangladesh, UNODCs work has focused since 2007 on providing interventions for women who use drugs and women who are partners of male drug users.  Based on the findings of this study, our partner NGOs, Ashokti Punorbashon Nibash (APON), Society for Community-Health Rehabilitation Education and Awareness (CREA), Dhaka Ahsania Mission (DAM) and Light House have initiated services for both these groups of women.

We hope that this study will contribute to raise awareness and understanding on the specific situation and needs of women who use drugs or who are partners of drug users and that this will lead to better services with expanded coverage for all the women who need services. It will also be a contribution to eliminating forms of structural violence against women.

Click here to read the report "Female Drug Users and Female Regular Sex Partners of Male Drug Users in Bangladesh"

Click here to read the message from the Under Secretary-General Michelle Bachelet, UN Women on the International Day to end Violence against Women