In almost every nation, punitive drug policies have the greatest impact on women who are already coping with poverty and social neglect, histories of physical and sexual violence, and marginalization. The UN special assembly on drugs to be held this month provides an important opportunity for women’s rights to be included in the global policies on illicit drugs.
In April 2016, the United Nations General Assembly is planning to convene a special session on the world drug problem at the UN Headquarters in New York. This convening is recognition of the need to review the global policies on drugs, bearing in mind that the current drug regime is based on 50-year-old conventions that lend themselves to an antiquated interpretation of the global drug problem. The drug regime, which comprises of three conventions overseen by the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the International Narcotics Control Board, and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), mostly focuses on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs without effectively eliminating supply or consumption of these drugs. In fact this approach, which scholars in recent times have referred to as ‘broken’, fails to consider the unique nature of the global drug problem which has social, economic and even security dimensions.
A broad observation of the impact of implementing the current legal framework as it is across the globe illustrates instances of ‘criminalization’ and social exclusion of entire communities viewed to fall within locations that produce, supply or use drugs, for example. It has also shown, for purposes of expediency, mass incarceration of drug users which is found to be both highly ineffective and strenuous to the justice system. This criminalization process further encourages high-risk behaviour such as unsafe injecting by drug users increasing the risk of spreading HIV, Hepatitis C and other blood-borne diseases. It further deters people in need of drug treatment from seeking it and diverts law enforcement resources from focusing on serious criminality. The current global drug policies reduce personal and government funds that might otherwise be available for positive investment in economically struggling communities who then become vulnerable to illegal organizations dealing in drugs. Indeed drug production, trafficking and/or consumption often results from a variety of coercive forces often driven or even necessitated by poverty and social neglect. Contemporary drug policies usually overlook these drivers and instead emphasize eradication and prohibition.
Whilst the discourse to review the law in April 2016 takes cognizance of all of the above issues, the broader discussions on reforms of the policy framework on drugs fail to recognize the disproportionate impact this broken law has had on women and children. Despite the statistics that a large majority of those using and trafficking drugs are men, the understudied and under-researched category that is indeed greatly affected by these policies are women and children.
Just looking at the numbers globally, for example, the rate of incarceration of women for minor drug-related crime is increasing at an alarming rate. Indeed women, whose role in this illicit drug economy is most often as consumers or low-level sellers often driven by the need to provide for their families, are finding themselves imprisoned at an unprecedented rate.
Beyond the numbers it is a fair assessment to state that women are uniquely vulnerable to prosecution and incarceration based on their relationships with others who are involved in the illegal drug trade rather than their own leadership or conduct in that trade. Owing to poverty and the inability of women in many societies, including, if not especially, in Africa, to access basic resources, drug trafficking organizations that thrive under existing global policies often times take advantage and induce such vulnerable women to courier drugs. It is these women who are then promptly incarcerated as low-level ‘criminals’ leaving out the more culpable organizations from the equation. These organizations seek out other vulnerable women and the cycle continues.
The penalty of incarceration meted on the women is doubly penalizing as it often results either in separation of mothers and their children or the incarceration of children alongside their mothers. Indeed the vast majority of women who are incarcerated around the world for drug-related offenses are mothers and therefore suffer this plight. Drug policies focusing on punishment not only deprive women of their freedom, but also compromise the wellbeing of their children. Taking this double tragedy to its logical, if not illogical conclusion, increasingly, punishment as a response to drug use also includes removal of children and termination of parental rights. Women then who took part in this illicit trade to provide for their children end up losing their children altogether.
The incarceration process further takes away from the family since women are most often the primary care-givers of the family. As such, once imprisoned the family is further impoverished once again ensuring the cycle of poverty continues with their children becoming vulnerable including to the illicit drug trade.
Finally the attendant stigma attached to a woman – and a mother at that – who uses drugs almost certainly ensures she does not access medical care or treatment. Women face significant barriers to accessing appropriate drug treatment, including lack of childcare, lack of trauma-informed care, and threats of arrest if they reveal that they are pregnant. Without access to nondiscriminatory healthcare, including drug treatment, a woman’s chance of acquiring HIV and Hepatitis C, experiencing homelessness, drug overdose, and significant family rupture all increase. In-fact in some jurisdictions drug using women are targeted for campaigns of sterilization.
These failures of the global policy on illicit drugs have visited an enormous cost to women. In almost every nation, punitive drug policies have the greatest impact on women who are already coping with poverty and social neglect, histories of physical and sexual violence, and marginalization.
Previous discussion to reform the global legal framework, though positive, has failed to squarely acknowledge the exceptional challenges women face. On the African front for instance, the African Union Plan of Action on Drug Control, which maps out context specific measures for African countries in their addressing the drug problem, does not make special provisions corresponding to women.
As different government representatives and non-state actors convene in April in New York to discuss the global policy framework on illicit drugs, an opportunity has emerged for countries and regions to consider health- and human rights-based drug policies. Undeniably an opportunity has arisen for women’s rights to be included in the global policies on illicit drugs. In the past the UN General Assembly has stated explicitly that governments not only have the duty to pass laws that are aimed towards protecting women, but that the state should also take responsibility for laws that may have unintended consequences of harm.
It is time women held their governments to account.
* Judy Gitau is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies. She has previously consulted with the Equality Now Africa Office, specifically working on the Solidarity for African Women’s Rights (SOAWR) coalition on domestication and implementation of African Union instruments in Africa, on the rights of women. She is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya, a human rights practitioner and presently a consultant for National Advocates for Pregnant women on UNGASS 2016.
 Drug policy and women: Addressing the negative consequences of harmful drug control, by Julia Kensy, Camille Stengel, Marie Nougier & Ruth Birgin.