The Drug War on Women

NEW YORK – When I was growing up in communist Poland, International Women’s Day was viewed as an opportunity to celebrate women’s contributions and accomplishments. But it was a hollow token. The following day, women went back to their lives of limited opportunity. No one-day holiday can do much to redress generations of discrimination.

The impact of the international drug-policy regime reflects this reality. In the drug supply chain, women are most commonly found at the bottom, often acting as “mules.” When a woman is caught, although she is often a non-violent first time offender, she faces a harsh mandatory minimum sentence.

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To the traffickers, these women are expendable. Bail is rarely put up for them, or a lawyer hired, because they hold no value to the trafficking structures. And, left on their own, these women lack the knowledge and resources to navigate the criminal justice system. Nor are they likely to have the right kind of information to trade with authorities in exchange for a lighter sentence.

More women are sent to jail for drug offences than for any other crime. In Latin America alone, they account for 70% of women in prison. The impact on the drug trade of incarcerating a drug mule for a decade is minuscule; but the effect on the women and their families is devastating and irreversible.

I first noticed the effects of drug policy on women when I traveled to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the Kyrgyz mountains, there were entire villages with not a man in sight; they had become migrant workers in Russia.

Within two years of Kyrgyzstan’s independence, prisons filled with women held on drug-trafficking charges. These were ordinary women, some of them “babushkas” wearing headscarves. When speaking to senior law enforcement officials, I was told that the women were smuggling drugs from Afghanistan to pay for shoes and schoolbooks. To the Tajik and Kyrgyz criminal justice system, they were the lowest-hanging fruit in the newly launched war on drugs.

Women in such circumstances face a double punishment: loss of liberty and family. To be convicted of a drug-related crime often means losing custody of one’s children. If the woman sent to jail is the head of a single-parent household and her children are placed in foster care, or if she is pregnant when entering prison, it is likely that she will never see them again.

Women can be victims of laws designed to combat trafficking organizations. Many have been charged with conspiracy simply for living with a man involved in drug sales. In some US states, applicants for public assistance, who are usually women, have to undergo drug testing. In many countries, drug-treatment protocols effectively ensure that women with children will be unable to receive services.

In much of Central Asia, a drug-dependent person has to register with authorities to receive treatment, which automatically puts women at risk of losing their children. In Eastern Europe, most available drug treatment takes place in long-term programs located at centers far from urban centers and without child-care services. Few women are able to take six months or more from caring for children or parents to enter such a facility.

The criminalization and stigmatization of women who use illicit drugs means that they are less likely than men to self-identify as needing assistance for drug dependence. This helps explain the low numbers of women who use services. In the same way that in some cultures a woman eats only when men and children have finished, she injects with syringes that her partner has already used, putting them at higher risk of contracting HIV or Hepatitis C. The significant overlap between sex work and drug use also places women at higher risk.

National drug regimes, moreover, prey on the vulnerabilities of women worldwide.

I sat once with an official at a London airport who picked up a Kenyan woman bringing cocaine into the United Kingdom. The woman had been told by a person who recruited her that if she was stopped, she would simply be sent home without repercussions because she was a woman and a mother.

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In reality, the half-kilo of cocaine brought a ten-year mandatory sentence. Once imprisoned abroad, such mothers, with no legal support or economic resources, often have no contact with their children back home.

Part of the effort to reform drug policy must address the systemic faults in criminal justice, health care, and welfare that exacerbate the plight of women caught in the crossfire of the war of drugs. The kind of policy that provides childcare for women seeking drug treatment might be anathema to the righteous occupiers of the world’s moral high ground. But until we start to look at drug policy through a gender-sensitive lens and focus on harm reduction, we will continue to wage a losing war on drugs, in which generations of our most vulnerable women and girls are casualties.