Shifting the Needle: The Impact of Global Drug Policy on Women

Organised by Penal Reform International, CELS, Dejusticia, International Drug Policy Consortium, Thailand Institute of Justice and Washington Office on Latin America

Recording in English

Recording in Spanish

Penal Reform International (Moderator: Triona Lenihan, Policy and International Advocacy Manager): Welcome. Today’s event is being recorded, and there will be English-Spanish interpretation. We will also be sharing key resources (see links throughout this post and at the end), including the book upon which this side event it based: “The Impact of Global Drug Policy on Women: Shifting the Needle” available on open access here: https://www.emerald.com/insight/publication/doi/10.1108/9781839828829  

UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls (Elizabeth Broderick, Chair): Putting women on the agenda of global drug policy is still at an early stage of what will likely be a long journey. The importance of a gender perspective, including the participation of women, was only recently acknowledged by the UN system, with the UNGASS Outcome Document in 2016. Today’s event represents our continual collective effort to bring much focus on this area. I congratulate all those involved in the publication of this book. I also love that it is freely available to the public. An estimated 30,000 women and girls are incarcerated, mostly due to the implementation of drug policies, and women are more likely than men to be in prison for drugs. The picture painted is one of gender and economic inequality, which calls us to look at structural discrimination that cause these inequalities.  Addressing the discrimination of women requires us to not just look at them as a vulnerable group, but as people with agency. They experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, that is where drug policy analysis needs to be situated. Women’s pathways to drug offences are often driven by their situations, of poverty, socio-economic inequality and lack of protection from the state, as well as having to support their families and involvement with men. Their involvement in roles such as drug couriers increases their health and other risks, more so than men. We also see that biases in the criminal justice system can lead to their disproportionate sentencing, as well as moral judgements on their conduct that is harsher than that of men. They face insurmountable barriers in accessing justice because of their financial inability to obtain effective legal representation but also because of the inadequate administration of justice. Such approaches perpetuate cycles of victimisation, with detrimental impacts on women and the families they support. Our Working Group call for the implementation of the Bangkok Rules, reductions in the incarceration of women and for alternatives to incarceration to be applied. States must take concrete measures to fulfil their commitments to human rights, including in their drug policies and programmes, while drawing on good practices, such as counselling, access to drug dependence treatment and harm reduction and involving women at all stages of development, evaluation and monitoring of drug policies. States also need to integrate into their drug policies the international guidelines on human rights and drug policies. We will also work towards integrating drugs and drug policy issues in our country visits and other areas of our work. Thank you. (See also these statements from UN human rights experts relevant to these issues: https://cdn.penalreform.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Bangkok-Rules-leaders-statement_Final_EN.pdf, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=24330&LangID=E, https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G19/139/27/PDF/G1913927.pdf?OpenElement)

Dejusticia (Colombia) (Isabel Pereira-Arana, Research Coordinator – Drug Policy): The research for our chapter in this book was during the negotiation of the peace agreement in Colombia. The monitoring of coca crops had existed for several years. At the moment of signing the peace agreement, it promised rural transformation with a gender focus but we were nervous because this could not happen if we didn’t know the women involved. I will divide my presentation into 3 parts: the how, the impacts and the way forward. Women not only harvest the land, they also provide food for workers, process the crops into coca paste and engage in trade. It also depends if they are working on their own land or land owned by others. They also perform important social leadership roles in their community, e.g. transitioning from at home with their families to the public with their communities. They bear the responsibility of many tasks and it is a burden. We carried out some research in Rio San Miguel, where there is no university nor many other services typically provided by the state so they had to make those services available themselves, by harvesting and selling coca. What are the impacts of their involvement in the coca economy? The coca economy and the link with armed conflict means that these communities involved in these economies were completely marginalised or targeted as narco-criminals themselves. So the only state presence they know of is the military, including through aerial-spraying. They have some positive experiences such as health and livelihood which come from coca cultivation whereas the negative experiences (e.g. fumigation, incarceration) come from drug policy.

In one story told by a woman named Sandra, her dad and family was involved in the coca trade and after that they were able to buy shoes for her sister so her first memory of involvement in the coca trade was of joy. The negative experience of state presence was sought to be addressed with the peace agreement but the state has not fulfilled their part. Women are at risk of being dispossessed of all they have earned and losing out in the ensuing power struggles, and communities are at risk of aerial fumigation. (Read more at: https://www.dejusticia.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Voces-desde-el-cocal-executive-summary.pdf)

UNAIDS (Dasha Matyushina-Ocheret, Consultant): I wish to especially thank my colleagues and friends at the Eurasian Harm Reduction Network that enabled me to do the research for this chapter on women in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA). The countries in the region are not always defined in the same way, but usually talking about 3 million people who inject drugs, and about 12% are women. But we still don’t have accurate information about the numbers of women who use drugs. So there is a region where we know a lot of women inject drugs but we don’t know many other details about them. We do know about HIV prevalence, where data shows that more women who inject drugs compared with men are living with HIV, e.g. Estonia, Ukraine (31% of women and 20% of men). So there is a huge need for access to harm reduction and social services. Women are a key population and should be a priority for HIV prevention and treatment. In the UNAIDS strategy released recently, one of the targets is that 90% of people who use drugs should have access to HIV prevention, treatment and care services and 80% of service delivery should be for key populations, including women-led services. We need to analyse how much funding and new services are needed to reach these targets, as well as the structural barriers. The concerns in EECA is also seen globally. Some of the barriers faced by women who use drugs include registration of people who use drugs and imposing requirements for compulsory drug rehabilitation; a practice that is common across ex-Soviet Union countries. Many women who are suspected of drug use therefore need to be put on a registry, starting from 30 years ago. Across the EECA this practice has changed but the core of it remains, and the fear of being registered drives fear of seeking services for drug use as it increases the risk of incarceration and unemployment, among others. One woman says ‘automatically I am a dysfunctional mother because I am on the drug registry.’ If a woman is not registered, she will not have access to opioid substitution treatment and other services. Access to health services amongst women is very very low. In Kazakhstan, for example where people who use drugs are required to be registered, only 48 women accessed opioid substitution treatment in 2018.

Thailand Institute of Justice (Chontit Chuenurah, Director of Office for the Bangkok Rules and Treatment of Offenders): The chapter that I and my colleague co-authored focussed on drug policies and women in prison in Southeast Asia. Together with other publications by TIJ, we highlight the use of harsh punishment and incarceration of women in the region. In Southeast Asia, there was a rapid expansion of the methamphetamine market and alongside it a scaling up of penalties in drug laws targeting the substance. Philippines has the highest rate of overcrowding in the world, with Thailand ranked 6th. The overcrowding is driven by the enforcement of drug policies. In Thailand, people in prison for drug offences is about 80% with neighbouring countries also see high rates such as in Singapore (74%) and Malaysia (56%). The increasing rates of women in prison is a cause of concern, and it is mostly for drug offences. Capital punishment applies as a penalty in many countries. The harshness of drug laws means that mitigating factors are often not considered. As a result, women are often sentenced with drug trafficking offences with severe penalties. We have been promoting together with others to ensure that sentencing policies need to take account of gender vulnerability factors instead of just the substance and amounts involved, e.g. poverty, lack of access to education and employment and other inequalities that have led them into prison. Our recent publication highlights the need to take account of these mitigating factors. We have carried out research to also analyse the impact of incarceration on women, and found that they are often incarcerated far away from their families, and they also experience poor access to legal assistance. There has been some progress in promoting the Bangkok Rules but there is still so much that needs to be done: only some women can benefit from non-custodial measures and sanctions because it is more humane and proportionate to low-level offenders, sentencing policies and court systems play important roles in women going to prison so we need to involve other stakeholders besides prison officers in promoting the Bangkok Rules (including law students, prosecutors judges), many systems find it challenging to ensure protection of women and we need to make sure that all groups (including age, sexuality) are cared for, and more data is needed especially disaggregation of data. TIJ believes in the importance of research, and we need nationwide systematic data collection to cover a wide range of women to ensure effective evaluation of our policies and programmes. Lastly we need to promote gender-responsive drug policy reform worldwide – we stand ready to work with member state and civil society on this – and to shift from a punitive to a more rehabilitative framework. (See relevant publications from TIJ, including: https://knowledge.tijthailand.org/en/publication/detail/research-on-the-causes-of-recidivism-in-thailand#book/,https://knowledge.tijthailand.org/en/publication/detail/women-s-pathways-into-through-and-out-of-prison#book/)

Penal Reform International (Moderator): In our latest reports we saw a 17% increase in the incarceration of women in the past decade, and it is mostly due to drug offences. (see for more on this: https://www.penalreform.org/blog/addressing-the-105000-increase-in-the-global-female/)

Metzineres (Spain) (Monica): I wish to share my experience. I was arrested by police on the streets. I was using drugs at the time. I had access to methadone but didn’t stay on it. I have been using drugs since I was 17 years old and have tried to quit many times but never successful. I became pregnant with my eldest daughter and started a treatment programme. When it ended, I had to do another methadone programme and when they tested me, it was positive and then I faced many legal issues. I was sent to prison and that’s when I faced many health issues. I was in prison for 12 years, and a different lawyer was sent to help me each time. That’s a long time to be in prison, as you can imagine. I became very rebellious. I was very distant and I ended up being sent to solitary confinement for 9 months after getting into a fight with one of the women. I was always very desperate to find the drugs I could use. When they released me they didn’t give me a heads up, didn’t let me know ahead of time. I was living in horrible conditions and couldn’t access the necessary services. Many times, women have had their children taken from them. I started taking heroin. I had the opportunity to stay in an apartment reserved for women who had prior convictions, as I was homeless at the time, I decided to take it up and that’s when my life changed. I started studying and got a degree. I had been living with my daughter for 2 years at that point. There is a needle/syringe programme in prison and it is meant to be confidential but is completely wrapped up in bureaucracy, and it doesn’t work well as prison staff are always worried women are bringing in syringes into their cells and therefore threaten them. There is the concern of HIV transmission inside prison due to possible sharing of needles. That’s not how I understand a harm reduction programme should work. It worked for some women but for many it didn’t. They shut down the women-specific facility recently and opened one for many, showing the sexist approach. When women are released they aren’t helped to plan for the future, so they end up on the streets. We came together and created a support group to better respond to women released from prison. We provide clothes, for example. This is some of the work we do at the University of Barcelona. I also help with girls who become wards of the state. I want to work in these fields because of my experiences, and after meeting some women with similar experiences, we started the organisation Metzineres. I was able to share my own lived experience, and to tell people what it is like to come out of the other side of all that. We work on preventing overdoses, and other assistance for women who use drugs. I don’t feel the same stigma there, the judgement. The connection and rapport that we have is really special. We help to bridge gaps between women who are incarcerated and those who are outside. We also work on advocacy on policies on incarceration and other issues. Metzineres is a safe space to connect with each other, and to share knowledge. There are several women working in Metzineres at the moment and we work with legal professionals amongst others. Some women are receiving alternatives to incarceration and treatment in prison – this is what we want to do, to care for women when they are released from prison. I want to emphasise my experience with the prison system, how it helped me gain knowledge on how to make a change. (See more on the work of Metzineres: in English http://fileserver.idpc.net/library/IA15_Metzineres_EN.pdf, and Spanish http://fileserver.idpc.net/library/IA15_Metzineres_SPA.pdf)

Penal Reform International (Moderator): that was a great way to end by pointing to responses that help people face real life challenges. To wrap up, I invite the panellists to make some final remarks to respond to some of the comments in the chat

Thailand Institute of Justice (Chontit): There is always a need for more research, and on Southeast Asia, IDPC has also done some research in Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand (https://idpc.net/policy-advocacy/partnerships/women-incarceration-and-drug-policy-in-south-east-asia).

UNAIDS (Dasha): it’s very important for research and activities to involve and be led by women who are affected, for example women who use drugs and formerly incarcerated women, and there is more funding needed to support this too.

For other relevant publications on this topic:

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