India: Understanding the situation and needs of women who use drugs - a UNODC study in the North East

Women who use drugs are marginalized and face stigma and discrimination from their families, communities and society at large. They find it hard to talk about their drug using habit and to seek and access treatment, and therefore remain a hidden population. Women who use drugs are vulnerable to serious health problems like transmission of HIV & hepatitis C as well as to domestic violence and sexual abuse. Current treatment programmes aimed at improving the health and wellbeing of people who use drugs and are not gender responsive. It is assumed that women who use drugs will find a way to fit into drug treatment programmes designed for men. Women, however, have very different needs and drug programmes need to be gender sensitive.

In its global work on drug use prevention, treatment and care, UNODC has been placing emphasis on research, evidence generation, advocacy and capacity-building. In this context UNODC makes special efforts to reach out to key vulnerable groups like women who use drugs.  In India, UNODC recently undertook a study titled 'Women Who Use Drugs in Northeast India'. The study describes drug use patterns among women in the North East, the adverse consequences of drug use for them as well as the impediments in accessing services. The study also identifies key policy and programme recommendations including (i) allocating exclusive funds and resources for strategies dealing with women who use drugs, (ii) encouraging alternate income generation interventions, particularly for those women engaged in sex work and selling drugs, (iii) designing and implementing preventive interventions, (iv) spreading awareness about reproductive and child health services, (v) advocating with law enforcement on the rights of women who use drugs and (vi) engaging women who use drugs right from the planning stage through implementation and the evaluation of services.

In the run-up to the International Women's Day, UNODC and UNWomen organized a special meeting to present the findings of the study and discuss its recommendations.  The meeting brought together critical stakeholders, including law and policy makers, activists, community groups, service providers and youth to deliberate on the situation of women who use drugs and the problems they face. Stakeholders emphasized the need for coordination between the various Ministries with relevant mandates to ensure the provision of comprehensive services for women who use drugs. It was underlined that coordination must take place at all levels within the Government, at the national level as well as at the state level and district level. The study was acknowledged not only as a critical tool for law and policy makers to promote better health services for women who use drugs, but also to bring into focus the need for economic support for women who use drugs as well as  prevention of violence and trauma counselling.

Click here to view the study

The study was conducted within the UNODC regional project 'Prevention of transmission of HIV among drug users in SAARC countries' with financial support from Australia and UNAIDS.