In Europe, almost a quarter of the people with severe problems caused by drug use are women. On average, there is one woman for every three men being treated, and one in five death cases caused by drug use are women.
The gender perspective is crucial for the interpretation of every issue and every problem, drug use not being any different. Men and women differ not only biologically, rather femininity and masculinity are determined culturally, historically and socially. The topic of this issue of Drugs – policies and practices strives to accentuate the importance of gender specific approaches in the drug use, addiction and treatment problematic in order to solve the challenges of women who use drugs.
Men and women use drugs from different reasons, men and women react differently to drug use and drug use manifests differently between them. This is due to biological reasons, on the one hand, i.e. sex differences, while on the other hand are the social and cultural aspects of drug use which are, among other things, gender determined. In Europe, almost a quarter of the people with severe problems caused by drug use are women. On average, there is one woman for every three men being treated, and one in five death cases caused by drug use are women. While in Europe gender-specified statistics is kept, Macedonia lacks in statistical analysis on drug use and related mortality, consequently in gender specific statistics. Bare statistics deserve a qualitative approach developed through discovering and interpreting female stories related to drug use and treatment. According to European research, female experiences on drug use focus around several crucial topics, which are: poverty and abuse as the main characteristics of women who use drugs, problems they face while attempting to live up to the socially standardized roles of mothers, troubles they face in prison, the stigma or policies and practices that prevent their access to drug addiction treatment. One such study is “Women’s Voices: Experiences and Perceptions of Women Facing Drug Problems,” published by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction in 2009.
The need to understand the reasons for drug use among women, as well as its consequences, is mostly related to the efforts to create the most efficient prevention model, but also to support women who use drugs. Understanding and responding to the challenges during pregnancy and motherhood among women who use drugs is of utmost importance. Experiences of these mothers range from stigma, condemnation, fear of losing one’s child instead of support and help in this specific period. According to the Women’s Voices Study, the number of pregnant women who use drugs in Europe each year is around 30,000. A large number of them are afraid to ask for help and support fearing negative judgments or being moralized and stigmatized by state institutions. This is precisely why we need easily accessible, specialized and anonymous support services for pregnant women who use drugs. We must bear in mind that pregnancy and motherhood can have a key role in motivating women to face and solve drug related problems. Such services must be available to women serving prison sentences in correctional facilities as well. Apart from medical care for pregnant women, there should be specific facilities (for visitations by children, for example, support from a psychologist and social worker) where prisoners will be allowed to spend quality time with their children – a precondition for successful and quality addiction treatment.
Finally, there is another, for now, insufficiently investigated feature of drug use among women. In comparison to men, the percentage of women who use different types of drugs (cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy etc.) is smaller, with the exclusion of sedatives. Sedatives are the only drug used more frequently by women than by men. Macedonia has yet to conduct research on people who use sedatives, with a particular focus on the reasons and their effects, although a Health Care Fund’s analysis revealed an alarming rise in the use of sedatives, i.e. almost every second Macedonian uses sedatives. Macedonian society has tolerance to the degree of normalizing sedatives use. We are probably the only country where sedatives have their own diminutive form: a small lexilium, a small diazepam, and comprise the medicine cabinets of many families. Consequently, we need a research on the average age of women who regularly use sedatives because it is quite likely that the number is broad, starting from very young to middle-aged or adult women.
Understanding the gender specifics of drug use is the first step decision-makers need to make towards creating an effective response to the problematic drug use women face. Investing in research and analysis can be highly profitable. Neglecting to acknowledge differences and hear women’s voices in understanding the phenomenon of drug use leads towards creating seemingly universal response to the problem, modeled and created with regards to men. Let’s hear women, their challenges and problems so we can find the most appropriate answer together.
Irena Cvetkovic holds a Master in Gender Studies and is currently working on her PhD thesis in the field of gender studies. As a young researcher she has worked on many research projects in the field of sociology, gender studies and media. She was the author of the socially engaged blog Femgerila and also wrote columns for the daily newspaper Dnevnik. She is a human rights activist for marginalized communities, particularly LGBT people, drug users and sex workers. She is also active in several formal and informal organizations working with human rights. At the moment she is the Executive Director of the Coalition “Sexual and Health Rights of Marginalized Communities” – Skopje.