Home » Side event: From militarised prohibition to intersectional inclusions: A feminist approach to drug policy

Side event: From militarised prohibition to intersectional inclusions: A feminist approach to drug policy

Side event organised by the International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific with the support of Canada, Germany, Mexico, Norway, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, CREA, the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, the Forging Intersectional Feminist Futures Consortium, the Instituto RIA, the International Drug Policy Consortium, the Women and Harm Reduction International Network and Suar Perempuan Lingkar Napza Nusantara

Gloria Lai, Regional Director: Asia, International Drug Policy Consortium (Moderator): Good morning and welcome to the side event ‘From militarised prohibition to intersectional inclusions: A feminist approach to drug policy’. Thank you to the International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia-Pacific for sponsoring this event, as well as the co-sponsors: IDPC, Centre for Foreign Feminist Policy, Women and Harm Reduction International Network, Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), Forging Intersectional Feminist Futures Consortium, SPINN (Indonesia), Instituto RIA, CREA, the OHCHR, and the governments of Norway, Mexico, Germany, and Canada. The objective of our side event today is to discuss how a feminist approach to drug policy can address the needs and experiences of marginalised groups due to their gender, sexual orientation and gender identity. We have a panel of amazing speakers from around the world. The first speaker joins us via a pre-recorded video: Dorothy Estrada Tanck, Chair of the Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls.

Dorothy Estrada Tanck, Chair of the UN Working Group on the Discrimination Against Women and Girls. This WG is one of the three human rights mechanisms specifically focused on the protection of the human rights of women and girls, together with the CEDAW committee and the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women and Girls. Thank you for inviting me and the opportunity of presenting on a feminist approach to drug policy. We know that globally one in three PWUD are women. We also know that women who use drugs face higher higher levels of stigma and discrimination and difficulties in accessing harm reduction programmes, treatment and basic healthcare. We also know that women who use drugs are disproportionately affected by criminalisation and incarceration, with 35% of women compared to 19% of men in prison worldwide convicted of a drug related offence. The war on drugs has a discriminatory and disproportionate impact on women and this undermines their health, wellbeing, wastes public resources while failing to eradicate the demand for illegal drugs. Militarised prohibition policies are often gender blind and have far reaching implications for the widest range of human rights of women. Sadly, to this day, women specific issues and concerns are largely invisible and neglected in drug policies and programmes as we will have seen in this event.

Our WG is an expert group of the Human Rights Council. We have demonstrated that drug policies cannot be effective if they do not address poverty and discrimination. We know this through our consultations directly with women who are affected by these drug policies. We have particularly found some points that I want to share with you. The stereotypes of women’s moral conducts play a role in the incarceration of women for drug crimes as they are judged more strictly than men. Second, the stereotype notions of what constitutes good motherhood aggravates the disproportionate criminalisation, detention and confinement of pregnant women who use or are suspected of using drugs, and they frequently risk imprisonment for attempted abortion, miscarriage or harming the baby during pregnancy because of drug use. Pregnant women suspected of drug and alcohol use can be involuntarily detained and forced to undergo medical treatment even when there is no sign of dependency or that the foetus is at risk. There is also a lack of social protection which is a cause for women’s engagement in drug trafficking. Women’s subordination forces them to be associated with, or blamed, for criminal acts committed by family members, including their male partners or spouses. Many women are incarcerated for having drugs in their homes while the owner is really the partner. We know as well that exposure to gender-based violence, including domestic violence, may increase women’s contact with the police with increased risks of criminalisation. This is particularly true for women identified as criminals in the first place such as women who use drugs or who are involved in minor drug trafficking. So they may be reluctant to contact police for fear of violence or discrimination against them, and they therefore remain in a cycle of coercion and violence. Violence is often used as a tool to coerce women involved in drug trafficking networks. They can be used as mules or treated as dispensable by the leaders of the criminal groups. Women who experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination are disproportionately affected. Systemic racism places racial minority women at heightened risk of drug trafficking, even at the lower levels of drug networks, and at higher risk of incarceration. Indigenous women face a similar position. Pregnant women of African descent are often subjected to state policing and surveillance and mandatory reporting requirements in relation to suspected drug use. This is because racism is embedded in the health system and harmful narratives about black maternal unfitness.

Apart from this identification of challenges, the way forward: the WG has called member states and international bodies to implement an intersectional feminist and human rights-based approach to drug policy responses, grounded in international human rights law and standards, with a comprehensive restorative and reintegrated justice approach. We also have approached this via the UN System Common Position on drugs, which approaches the issue not as a criminal but as a health matter, to be dealt with through rights-based measures, including in public education, provision of mental health care and support, transition and reintegration programmes. States and international bodies should also integrate the International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policies into policies related to women, and ensure that drug policies are gender-responsive while upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms. Effective, community-based, inclusive and preventive measures are also equally important. I would add here an additional point that is not directly from the WG, but in which one of our previous WG members participated: it is the 8th March Principles developed together with different experts. The principles are based on human rights approaches to drug use and related policies on homelessness and poverty affecting women and girls. This is a valuable source for policy formulation.

We have a historical responsibility to reverse the devastation brought about by decades of a global war on drugs and its disproportionate impact on women. Now more than ever, we must replace punishment with support, and promote policies that respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of all women and girls. Thank you again.

Zara Snapp, Instituto RIA. We have done a lot within Instituto RIA to ensure that the entirety of our work and way of working as an organisation incorporates a feminist perspective. When countries begin militarising, it’s much more difficult to pull back to functioning as a civilian government. And you see a huge increase in human rights violations within a militarised approach to governance. You see this at check points, walking through the streets, and in any interactions with the government and the military. So in Instituto RIA, our vision around a feminist approach comes not from academia, it comes from homes, from classrooms, from the streets, from what we hear and see and live. We believe that a feminist approach also begins to address the intersection between capitalism, racism and xenophonia, and how we work together as a team to begin to weave this intersectional approach against those structural conditions. We also believe that our approach within the organisation towards the outer world is based in lived experience as women, as women who are migrants. All of us identify as women who use drugs, as mothers, as care takers. And this really means that we have that lived experience. There are also always gaps, as we can’t speak out for all women and all their experiences. I live in Mexico, I’m a white woman, and there is privilege going with this. So I can speak as a woman who uses drugs. Recognising this privilege in every day life, and figuring out how to fill these gaps, and understand the multitude and diversity of experiences, is critical.

One of the things we work on is language. In Spanish, we have gender language: “equipo” for team. We are five women in Instituto RIA, and so we are an “equipa” since we’re all women. We are able to change language to reflect the work we are doing and who we are within our team. We have made the decision to incorporate menstruation days to be able to rest and take care of ourselves if needed. Self care and collective care is important: how do we care for one another in an environment where there is a high rate of burnout. Just listening to the CND is hard! We also have focused in the last three years on many campaigns around women and drug use and women and drug cultivation, sexual practices and drugs. Probably 80% of the messages we received on social media are from women who are either consuming, or were recently pregnant and want to know how it affects their health. I use cannabis, how will that affect me? Should I stop? I am pregnant and want to suspend my use but I feel anxious. So we work on how to provide resources, recognising that what is not studied becomes invisibilised. We know that there is not a lot of research on how drugs can affect women/female bodies vs male bodies. As a small organisation in Mexico, we can’t fill that gap in research, but what we can do is gather stories and experiences and share those, understanding that this is a personal decision for the mother or woman to make, whether she decides to use during periods of pregnancy and lactation which can be quite extended. I lactated my children until they were two years. The idea that I would need to stop cannabis and other substances for that time was difficult. But I used a harm reduction approach in my personal life to take care of my body and my mind to ensure that my children and people I care for were also better off. Often, the woman figure is meant to be sacrificing everything for the benefit of the rest. We believe it’s important to make decisions based on how that will be politically seen. We also run a drug checking programme and see the power dynamics when women and men together come to check the drugs, and who is deciding: oh I bought this substance so I am taking the decision about her consumption. Women need to feel closer to the service, have moments when only they can use the services and access information they need. Women’s needs for harm reduction and drug checking are different from men. This is something we’re incorporating fully in our work, including with campaigns on feminism. We are also conducting research on women who use drugs with the Institute of Women of Mexico. We come from this research from a harm reduction approach: how can we speak to these women as peers who use drugs without requiring abstinence, and understanding that we want to make their lives better. Because in our proposals and policy proposals, we are taking this approach of: it’s about creating equality and shifting the balances of power. We believe we shouldn’t have to go through power dynamics to access the substances we may want. Women should be able to decide when, where, with whom and how much. Something that’s a bit troubling for us is the term “narco-feminism”, because for us, it is a word that we are trying to push out in Latin America. When you speak to people from the region, it’s the idea that we’re connecting ourselves with non-state actors, while what we’re trying to do is begin to disintegrate those actors and understand that the state is much more connected with the idea of “narco” than we are as activists and advocates and people in the street.

Gloria: Thank you for your strengthen and resilience. It’s wonderful and inspiring to learn from you, your work and your peers’ work. Thanks for sharing this. On to a different part of the world, I am inviting Aya to share her experiences working in Indonesia.

Baby Aya Virgarose Nurmaya, Suar Perempuan LIngkar Napza Nusantara: Thank you so much Gloria, Marie and other speakers. This is actually an honour for me because it’s my first CND and I never thought that we could speak about women issues like this. I am really excited to come, not because of the CND only but because I can bring my voice to the other parts of the world on women who use drugs. We need to come up with the voice, not “just shut up, you listen to your partner or parents”. What I want to share here is my experience. I come from a group of women and trans women who use drugs. I am based in Bogor, one of the cities in West Java, Indonesia. We use the “x” in “womxn” is because we include trans women. That’s why we use “womxn’s Voice”. This is a little bit of introduction about who we are. Womxn’s Voice is a movement supported by Suar Perempuan Lingkar Napza Nusantara, our organisation, which became a legal entity in 2022, so we’re newbies here. But we seat together to discuss transformation of power. We believe we need to commit to one another. We are now 18 members active, including women and trans women who use drugs – but we only have 3 staff members. It’s challenging to survive with the work we do. Me and my colleague Rosma and another colleague who couldn’t come here, we sit together and think about what we exactly want and need, what we want to tell others. Womxn’s Voice started a collective of 6 women and trans women from Jakarta who came together to discuss what to do. I’m joining the harm reduction and HIV programme in Indonesia since 2005, but it failed me because many times we were dismissed from meetings, were too busy with our domestic work. So me, Rosma and my other colleague thought that if we didn’t do work ourselves, we couldn’t tell the world what we needed and wanted. All policies are focused on men, not on women. We had to break the barriers faced by women and trans women. Globally, in South East Asia and elsewhere trans women face many barriers, especially if they engage in sex work and/or in drug use. To break the barriers we built bonds with our community to sit together, but also to make ourselves more knowledgeable, more powerful. We follow trainings, we share with other networks, we collaborate to grow. That’s what we are thinking we should have because women are invisible. I will take this opportunity now because this is our time. There will be no other time. I am honoured to be in this panel because it acknowledges that the feminist approach is the right approach to take care of women and women who use drugs. We try to engager with other organisations, with other issues, with marginalised people (disability organisations, LGBTI organisations, harm reduction organisations, the media, etc.). We sit together as friends: it’s not only about what I want from you but also what I can do to support you. Since 2021, we are trying to sit together and talk about our problems to come up with some ideas and joint work to have a better future for women and trans women who use drugs. When we sit together, we realise that everybody uses drugs. So why should we always ignore this? Especially for trans women who use drugs, they face higher levels of violence. Most of us are living with HIV, are formerly incarcerated, single moms. What Gloria said is correct: when can we decide to be ourselves? We work together with the Indonesian Network for Drug Policy Reform, bringing together legal aid, feminist organisations in Indonesia, and we put together a short video on better policies for women who use drugs. [Video shown here].

Before my time is up, I want to highlight responses for women who use drugs. We are women, partners, mothers. We need prevention, treatment rehabilitation, but we also need to reinforce social support systems. For me and other women grappling with substance use disorders, we should make this feminist movement into a drug policy movement. For all women and trans women who use drugs, our rights are human rights.

Gloria: I admire the intersectional nature of your work, and how you and Zara always acknowledge the needs of women who come from many different backgrounds and affected by a different range of issues, without living people behind but bringing them along with you. Now turning to Alison Crocket, our last speaker. There are very few governments that have adopted a feminist approach to their policies and the Scottish Government is one of them.

Alison Crocket, Scottish Government. Thank you for these amazing presentations, I will have to up my game! And thanks for saying we’re trying. But I have to say, my presentation will offer a more sobering account, we all have a long way to go to adopt a feminist approach to drug policy. I am from the Scottish government, under the administration of the UK government. Some have become frustrated over the fact that we need to switch away from a criminal approach to drug policy. But we have a long way to go. I want to explain where we come from and what we are trying to do. Scotland has one of the worst death rates in Europe relating to drug use. We have therefore moved to a health approach. Women are particularly affected, and this is because of women’s role in society as care givers. They are often considered as negligent and abusive if they use drugs. They find it difficult to come forward for support for their drug use if they have children, and this is justified if you see that you are many times more likely to lose custody of your children because of drug use than you are if you don’t. But it’s not just women who are mothers who are affected. Policies focusing on recovery mostly mention men and only marginally mention women, specifically if they are pregnant or mothers. So they are being left behind and are more affected in terms of housing, income, welfare and insecurity, experiences of violence and other abuses. All of this needs to be addressed through a gender sensitive lens, including taking into consideration women from ethnic communities, LBGT and women with disabilities, to facilitate their participation in healthcare. We recognise the need to include communities of women who use drugs in the design and delivery of these interventions. Some examples of what we have started doing. There is a rehabilitation unit in Glasgow that provides women specific services designed by the women who use it, and provides easy access to information on reducing drug harms, mental health, sexual health, and support women experiencing violence. It also has a high tolerance in its housing model, recognising that women may continue using drugs. This approach has contributed to reducing the numbers of drug overdose deaths. I have been moved by the level of compassion and care that the women show one another, and finding the courage to demand support. The Scottish government has put together a work force team for local areas to respond more effectively to the needs of women, not only for developing services, but also to address issues such as stigma, rights, holistic care, abuse, sexual and reproductive health. We are also looking to increase the focus on women who use drugs who are pregnant, with increased access to health services, but there are still many gaps that we have to address urgently. This work we’re doing will focus on keeping families together and also to support women who have had their children removed from them. Equity of access to rehabilitation is also an issue, we provide women with baby units and we continue to explore different models of residential care. There are more examples of recovery groups that create safe environments for women who have experienced multiple vulnerabilities to come together, offering a sense of community. These are vital support for women. All those spaces are high tolerance spaces and so of course women who continue to use drugs are also welcome. There are also efforts in the safe consumption room in Glasgow as well to ensure that this is a safe space for women to use. It’s not perfect, but every effort is being made. Beyond women-only services, we need to ensure that women are considered at the earliest point in the design and delivery of more generic services. As with most countries, drug related harms are centred among the poorest. If you live in the poorest areas of Scotland, you are 15 times more likely to die of an overdose than if you live in the wealthiest. You are also 20 times more likely to lose your children in those areas. We are working on various initiatives to provide trauma-informed services to give women back the agency to demand the help they need in the order that they need it. The women I have worked with in the past are often strong, resilient and creative people who have had to deal with more than their fair share of stigma, abuse and punishment. They are absolutely able to identify the care they need and meaningfully contribute to their communities. What they need is the care and support that should be provided to anyone in our society.

Gloria: Thank you so much Alison. It’s refreshing to hear from a government representative about how much you see the difficulties faced and what needs to be done, and it’s amazing to see the work you’re doing already with results on preventing overdose deaths.


Person from the Philippines: This is a comment. In my country, over the past six years,  under the authoritarian government of Duterte, we saw the killing of over 30,000 people. We found that only one out of six of these people was a drug suspect. What my organisation is doing (Feminist Solidarity Against EJKs) is support the women, including with funds. We have a session tomorrow on EJKs and will have as a keynote speaker a woman senator who was jailed by Duterte and I will share more about our work. Thank you very much.

Gloria: Thank you for your courage in speaking out.

Zara: I will also do some promotion: today at 4pm womxn (with an x!) will gather at the VIC bar to have conversations across regions and across topics.

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