Drug and substance abuse continues to be a threat in most countries of the world, both developed and developing. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2021 report, by the end of this decade, there will be nearly 11 per cent increase in people who use drugs globally. The situation in India is no different. In 2017, an estimated 22,000 people died as a result of illicit drug consumption. And the number has been on a rise ever since. Just like many other issues, drug addiction too impacts genders differently. While much has been said and done in recent years to address the problem, it has not been looked at from a gender perspective.
What Do Numbers Say
In India there were 250 drug users per 100,000 people in 2012. Most studies show that men tend to have more substance dependence than women. Globally, alcohol or drug dependence was twice as common in men than women in 2016.
More than 42 per cent of 41.5 million illicit drug users in the United States were women, according to a 2012 survey, implying a current male/female ratio of 1.4:1. Such kind of studies which highlight data on the basis of gender are largely missing in India. Punjab, which is known for its addiction problem, has mostly focused on male de-addiction. Data on female addiction in the state continues to be scarce. The precise number of female drug users in the state is unknown, although experts estimate it is in thousands.
There is a Social Problem
Drug addiction is frequently viewed as an individualistic and moralistic issue. However, that may not be the correct approach to the issue. A person’s proclivity to get addicted is frequently linked to their social surroundings and socioeconomic circumstances. Education, career, family income, gender and social hierarchy all influence the likelihood of a person succumbing to addiction. The Magnitude of Substance Use in India Report, 2019 stated that people affected by drug use are one of the most marginalised and under-served populations. This is a vicious cycle: drug addiction has a social impact, just as social factors influence the likelihood of slipping into the drug trap. While addiction is sometimes viewed as a victim-less crime, it also contributes to social disorganisation.
The Double Burden on Women
A woman, particularly in our country, is typically viewed as someone who is morally upright and follows social conventions. Women are plagued by gendered norms even when substance usage is deemed a wrongdoing for all. According to a documentary produced by Alliance India, a non-governmental organisation that works in partnership with civil society, government and communities to support long-term HIV responses, women are frequently ignored and left alone, even if they have become addicted as a result of their husband’s regular use.
Another hardship that many women confront is the inability to enter a rehabilitation facility. Even if they desire to accomplish it, their domestic and family obligations get in the way. And because men are typically the breadwinners, they are often prioritised for treatments.
Inadequate Addressal and Lack of Research
Much of the data on drug addiction in the country is still dependent on small-scale studies or anecdotal evidence. For women, the problem is even more persistent. First and foremost, when selecting sample for research studies, women are not treated equally. Even if they are included in the sample, no gender-specific concepts are employed to comprehend the causes and consequences. In the Indian context, the conceptions of masculinity and femininity, which form the underpinning for gender-oriented research in any discipline, have long been overlooked. Women suffer the burden of this insufficient addressal. Apart from this, there is sparse research in how treatments act differently for men and women.
Largely Neglected in HIV Response
Despite a sustained campaign on feminisation of HIV epidemic worldwide, in India, the existing HIV response is inadequate; women who inject drugs are mostly ignored. Women are socially marginalised and at risk. With limited access to resources and information required to protect their health and well-being, they suffer more than men. They are more likely to contract HIV and Hepatitis C if they engage in unsafe sexual behaviour and share injecting equipment with their partners. This, however, is not given the attention it deserves.
More than Just Health Consequences
Women suffer a variety of concerns, mental health problems, reproductive health issues, child care challenges, social stigma and abuse, in addition to being prone to HIV as a result of injecting drugs. Even if women are not the primary users of drugs and other substances, they become the bearers when others in the family get addicted. Women, who are often blamed for not fulfilling their roles as ‘mothers’ when their sons get addicted, become prone to anxiety and depression due to guilt and shame.
Possible Future Steps
Studies in the West have revealed that men and women show different patterns of drug and substance abuse. We need similar studies in India which try to understand the impact of gender socialisation and stratification on women’s entry and exit from drug abuse. Women face a very different situation in our society and this is impacted by the roles and responsibilities they are expected to fulfil. Their empowerment and way out from substance abuse will only be possible if their special needs are supported and given attention to.
In the US, for instance, “life skills training”, “women theatres”, “out-of-school programmes”, “building family bonds” and other programmes have helped. These programmes targeted the high-risk groups. With appropriate funding and expertise, there has been a decline in alcohol, tobacco and marijauna users in high-risk communities of Cupertino, Salinas and San Francisco in California; Louisville in Kentucky; and White Plains in New York. If done correctly, such treatments can be beneficial in India too. However, in order to determine the efficiency of these programmes, they must be evaluated on a regular basis.
Gender- and age-sensitive drug policies are required with a focus on the needs and concerns of women and young people. Keeping the cultural context in mind, it is imperative that essential services such as transport, monetary and child care support are provided to women who try to seek professional care. These might also help in getting more family support for women availing treatment. Opening doors for dialogue and strategies which are inclusive and empathetic in nature can help in solving the issue.
Mahek Nankani is Assistant Programme Manager at The Takshashila Institution. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.