The war on drugs: time to count the costs to women
Given that today is International Women’s Day, it seems an appropriate time to highlight the fact that the war on drugs has disastrous effects for not only men, but women too. The below extract is taken from the Count the Costs stigma and discrimination briefing, and outlines the particular ways in which the drug war causes undue suffering to women across the globe. (See the full briefing for references.) If you work for, or are a member of, an organisation that promotes women's rights, please email email@example.com to join our list of supporters.
Although most commonly convicted for low-level, non-violent drug offences, and not the principal figures in criminal organisations, women are disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.
Mandatory minimum sentencing for trafficking often fails to distinguish between quantities carried, and even lower-end sentences can be very harsh. Rigid sentencing guidelines often limit judges’ discretion, preventing them from considering mitigating factors that might reduce the sentences handed down. The result has been that many women involved in drug supply at a relatively low level are subject to criminal sanctions similar to those issued to high-level market operatives and large-scale traffickers.
This results in particularly severe sentences for so-called “drug mules” – those women who carry illicit drugs from one country to another either in their luggage or inside their person. Usually coming from socially and economically marginalised backgrounds, such women are commonly driven to drug trafficking either by desperation (a lack of wealth and opportunity), or by coercion and exploitation from men further up the drug trading hierarchy. The prison sentences drug mules can receive are all the more excessive considering that these women are often characterised by low levels of literacy, mental health or drug dependence issues, and histories of sexual or physical abuse. Any dependents of these women are a frequently overlooked additional population of drug-war casualties.
The war on drugs contributes to the sexual abuse and exploitation of women, with sex sometimes used as currency on the illicit drug market, or women being forced to have sex to avoid arrest or punishment by law enforcement. Reports from Kazakhstan, for example, have described police performing cavity searches on female injecting drug users found in areas near to known dealing points – with any seized drugs reclaimable in exchange for sex.
Expending resources on criminal justice responses to drug use, rather than investing in effective public health measures, further places an undue burden on women. Gender-specific treatment programmes that allow women to live with their children are often lacking (where they exist at all), and in certain countries, pregnant dependent drug users do not have access to the safest and most appropriate treatment practices, compromising both their health and that of their unborn children.
Drug taking is often equated with negligence or mistreatment of children, as a woman’s drug use or dependence can be grounds for removing a child from her care. This is blanket discrimination on the basis of a lifestyle choice or health condition, often fuelled by populist political and media stereotypes (the term “crack mom” is a notable example). Such weighty decisions should in fact be made on an individual basis, taking into account the real risk of abuse or neglect in each case.
Drug-related violence, the victims of which have historically been young men, is now also claiming the lives of women. In Central America, some of this violence has been attributed to “femicides” – the murders of women who are killed because of their gender. Although a concrete link between the drug war and such killings is difficult to demonstrate, there is a growing consensus that in many regions the atmosphere of violence and impunity created by the drug cartels has led to an environment in which women are deemed disposable and, as such, can be subjected to horrific forms of abuse.
- Globally, women are imprisoned for drug offences more than for any other crime
- One in four women in prison in Europe and Central Asia are incarcerated for drug offences, with levels as high as 70% in some countries
- From 1986 to 1996, the number of American women incarcerated in state facilities for drug offences increased by 888%, surpassing the rate of growth in the number of men imprisoned for similar crimes
- In Eastern Europe, women who have experienced domestic violence can be refused entry into women’s shelters if they are active drug users
- In Russia, opioid substitution therapy – which is an important and internationally recognised treatment option for pregnant women who use opioids – is not available and is actively opposed by the government