When There Is No Safe Place to Go

When Lada, a young Russian woman, called the police after her step-father had beaten her again, this time after claiming she’d eaten his soup, she did not expect the police would do anything to help her. She simply hoped to buy some time. Lada had a police record as a drug user, and sure enough, once the officers realized it, they left with the parting words, “You and your kind only make innocent people suffer.” Still, Lada insisted on going to the precinct and reporting her case. Even then the police would not register her complaint, and she ended up on the street at 3 a.m. with her one-year-old in her arms and no safe place to go.

Worldwide, visible progress has been made in addressing violence against women. Since the 1993 UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, many countries—Russia, notably not among them—have adopted legislation to address, investigate, and prosecute any act of gender-based violence. Thanks to women’s movements all over the world, we have begun to move beyond the image of a battered woman as a hapless victim or someone who has inflicted it upon on herself. There is greater recognition now than ever before that violence against women is a universal human rights issue.

For women who use drugs it’s a different story.

Violence has many faces for women like Lada who are marginalized for their drug use, involved in sex work, or living with a history of incarceration, and few places are truly safe. Spouses or parents see beatings, humiliation, or other forms of abuse as deserved, or a way to “cure” women from their addiction. The intense social stigma associated with women’s drug use is a license to abuse.

In a recent study from Ukraine, male partners of battered women overwhelmingly found it acceptable to beat or otherwise physically abuse women for using drugs or alcohol, even though men often encourage their female partners to use drugs in the first place. The same study also shows that most men believe they have the right to control their partner’s movements and social contacts, which means that many women have limited opportunities to seek help.

The women who do seek help or safety, however, may not necessarily find it. In most countries of the former Soviet Union, crisis centers are few and far between. And where they do exist, it is common practice to turn away those with alcohol or drug problems. While multiple studies show the intimate link between trauma and substance abuse, both shelter staff and primary care physicians often lack any training or awareness of the issues.

Going to the police is often an even worse experience. Recent reports from Russia and Canada show that police in many countries not only fail to protect the women they perceive as living “on the other side of the law,” but are often the most feared perpetrators of abuse. Police treatment of women who use drugs has been documented to range from shaming, humiliation, and extortion, to the threat of arrest, and even physical and sexual abuse. Unfortunately, instances of such abuse can often only be used in appeals to the international community due to lack of recourse mechanisms in many countries, and the fear of retribution from police.   

In Lada’s case, the police response was indifference, but could easily have been much worse. Luckily, she had her phone with her and was able to call her social worker at a local harm reduction project after the police refused to help her. However, many women have no one to call, and if they do, the response they often receive is: “You’re a drug user, this is what you deserve.”

So while we reflect on how far we have come in the movement to end violence against women, let’s also take a moment to recognize—especially when it comes to women who use drugs—just how far we still need to go.

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