Side Event: ‘Were you really raped or did you just not get paid?’ – Addressing stigma and violence against women who use drugs

Zhuldyz Akisheva, UNODC Regional Office South Africa: Welcome.

Ms. Molekane, South Africa: We have a regulatory and institutional responsibility to respond to the needs of women, drug users and other stakeholders. The main issue is NPS that hampers our treatment and recovery responses due to its constantly changing nature. WDR continues to pose serious threats. We are bound to the international policy and legal framework, the three conventions, and our national strategy. We encourage cooperation prevention, treatment, care and governing of the control of substances. Protection of vulnerable groups, promotion of social cohesion. The majority of PWUD are already for the marginalized and vulnerable population. Stigma often excludes those who policies are aimed to protect. Through partnerships, we can look at solutions and develop strategies. Several interventions by the Gender-based Violence Command Center to provide pro psycho-social support to victims of gender-based and domestic violence. Where the police system fails, [CSOs step in]. We have a toll-free number and other modern communicational platforms are leveraged. We have geo-locators in a pocket size alarm that alerts the Command Center. Victim empowerment services, shelters for abused women and their children – a bill is on route to the cabinet to be adopted. This legislation would ensure victims are provided necessary services and offenders are registered. We thank the Colombo Plan. The first cohort graduated in 2018 and the second in February 2020. We are in three spheres of government: national provincial and local to bring services to everyone that needs it and it also serves as an early warning system. We have a family reuniting program, we believe women ae the backbone of our economy. Our challenge is that women who use drugs and liv on the streets also receive the care they need, interventions that are specific to WWUD and their children. We value our partnership with UNODC, the private sector and civil society as we strive to achieve a drug free Africa.

Angela McBride, SANPUD: This document is particularly close to my heart as we worked together with UNODC and women who use drugs to discuss their needs, challenges and to identify their solutions. A lot of the time when we want to help, to support, generally we assume what the recipients need. So, we had to ask the community – who better to tell you what’s good for them than the individual themselves? We worked with 78 women in the space of 2 months, 70% injecting, 63% was homeless, 83% have experienced abuse by a partner. This in a nutshell describes the experiences women have in South Africa. When we dive deeper into the challenges, we noticed a pattern of gender-based violence, extortion, rape, bribery on this anyway vulnerable human being. Women on the streets are used and abused. When women seek help, interacting with the police, trying to report violence, they often her similar sentiments as the title of our event. Our report is not pretty.
Law enforcement in itself has been sensitized in some areas and there you can recognize positive changes. We see that change. It also impacts the willingness of women to access health services. One of the other important recommendation was harm reduction, evidence-based interventions. For women who use drugs and PWUD in general, it is key to meet them where they are at. If that means sterile injecting equipment, the support should be there. If it is treatment services with medical professionals, the support should be there. When we come form a punitive, aggressive place, this is perpetuating and reinforcing the stigma and discrimination that PWUD and WWUD face. I don’t just want to talk about the negatives. It is important to acknowledge the challenges we face but we also have to acknowledge that we do have the solutions. We would like to have our cases open and we want people to believe us, to take us seriously – we want to walk into a hospital or police station and be helped instead of being told how we did that to ourselves. Peer-led and peer-run programmes are vital. Harm reduction, peer-involvement and non-judgmental service access is vital when it comes to addressing the challenges women who use drugs face in South Africa. These should be taken into account for all people who are part of a vulnerable group.

UNODC: The most important issue is that when governments design high-level plans and policy documents, they make sure these trickle down and people are not actually left behind. In SA it is often considered that the offenders are the users. We often forget women are often victims and are doubly stigmatized. Same applies to women in prisons.

Signe Rotberga: We have two publications, in one of them we have many quotes from the women who participated and also policy documents that are guiding state action. It is a powerful comparison. We haven’t stopped this assessment. Next, we organize consultations with stakeholders where reps from police, social ministry, CSOs were participating. I was surprised how the discussion went – we were all emotionally impacted by what we read in this booklet. I saw a policeman hugging one of our participants, this is result. So, I thank all our colleagues, now we start a new phase where we plan actions. The floor is open for discussion.

Audience: I’ve been to a one-day workshop with Angela and when she handed out cards with words from the ladies involved. 9 out 10 of those cards involve police violence. So my question is to the representative to SA, what do you plan to address what seems as a police brutality issue?

Ms Molekane: The new task team has come up with a plan. The president has tasked every department with a response. It is known in the country that one of the key challenges we face is the relationship between the victims and the justice system. In the action plan, it is one of the key alias of intervention that the security cluster as a whole responds […?] The old way didn’t yield results as we would like to so now it is up to us that we take responsibility for how women are facing stigma.

Audience: I am really proud of what SA has done, but just like in Kenya (where I am from) the WWUD are always on the run from police. If we do harm reduction in the bushes and on the street, there are gaps. If SA is leading this, do you plan on safe houses? Without that, we are leaving a lot of people behind.

Ms Molekane: This report highlighted the gaps. There has been a tendency in belief that women issues are homogeneous. We moved into a different direction. We welcome this report very much because it assists in redesigning interventions in order to leave no one behind. Women brought the country to a standstill – the stock exchange was at a standstill. Some women fall through the cracks. This report says we need to go back and look at the gaps in our approaches.

Shaun Shelly: Resources within communities with easy access without travel is what we need. Good models have been extended to South America. All we need to do is align measures to the SA constitution to address the gaps. On a municipal level there are many contradictions for example closures of services. How can we ensure constitutional obligations are met and are in line with human rights guides?

Ms Molekane: When we are facing critical issues, it is through civil forums that we learn about the way and the how. It is critical to understand why there would be such closures. Local governments tend to close due to financial difficulties – they submit yearly designs based on priorities. I am not able to tell you why those services have been closed but of there is a pressing need, the national government can pressure local governments.  We also have a reporting system that requires municipalities and provinces to monitor measures and the impact of those. Women said to the government “Nothing about us without us” and that is what we are seeing now and this is what the president is planning to continue.

Audience: The role of national institutions in stigmatizing women and PWOD, specifically religious institutions and the media. There was a role to play by moral judgement in the closing of services. Racial slurs, slurs against women had sent people into jail. What do people with influence do to sensitize the media and the religious institutions?

Ms Molekane: The action plan of the gender-based task team is of priority, they report to the president, it is composed of diverse stakeholders but is driven by women. The government is providing the necessary resources. Women had had enough, we were reading about depressing news about women for too long – this is a new blueprint. We changed the premise that women are homogenous. We need the network to engage with the record to avoid being left behind. This is a serious opportunity. Women’s needs are not homogenous so they have to stand up for themselves, engage among themselves and speak about what works for them. […]

Audience: We have only women rehabilitation centers with specific support to women. Then we have support groups for after. Was that not part of the needs assessment to link them to local institutions?

Audience: If the task team established, is there a way to deal with the needs of women who use drugs specifically. We appreciate that you acknowledge the report, how can we go about to make sure these needs are actually met.

Audience: I understand the drug use behavior. Is there a needle exchange program or a methadone clinic, could you just give an overview of existing programs?

Angela McBride: The discussion around services being shut down referred to this actually. We worked in cities where there used to be internationally funded evidence-based programmes including needle exchange. Two years ago, they threatened to sue the implementing organization if they didn’t stop their activities immediately. Around the exact same time, an other city funded a new needle exchange program. How is it that we can have one province supporting OST and syringe exchange where on an other, a complete opposite is the case? We wanted to have proof that women who use drugs are struggling so that we can sit here and say, I am being harassed, I’ve been turned away from health care, I have been told it is my fault for having a wound. Being able to put that into a document supported by UNODC and some SA departments. It is not everything we would want, but there is change. We have support groups through harm reduction projects, we get together and there are small successes. We get caught in the negative and it is important to recognize the progress. When we come together in a non-judgmental way, amazing things happen!

UNODC: Thank you. Looking forward to continue this discussion throughout the year.

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