A Blind Spot in the Movement Against Gender-Based Violence

When Yulia, the coordinator of the women’s outreach program at a harm reduction service in Kyiv, Ukraine, noticed a young client’s relationship with her partner was becoming increasingly violent, she called the local government-run women’s shelter for help. The reply was short: “Does she use drugs or alcohol? Yes? Then we cannot take her.”

The shelter eventually agreed to admit the woman on the condition that she enroll in a methadone program and stop using illegal drugs. But Yulia remains worried: “Even if he lets her, enrolling into drug treatment will take weeks, while I need to get her into safety tonight. And I cannot call the police: instead of protection, she will get arrested because she is a drug user.”

Yulia’s client is not alone. According to the World Health Organization, one in three women will experience violence in her life, most commonly at the hand of an intimate partner. But for women who use drugs, this number is closer to 76 percent, like in Indonesia, or 80 percent, like in Kyrgyzstan—where half of the women surveyed also named the police among their abusers.

This is one of the reasons violence against women who use drugs is a major public health problem: police are often both the first responders to reports of domestic violence, and the frontline enforcers of the war on drugs. They often treat women who use drugs as potential offenders, rather than as fellow citizens whose health and rights they are charged with protecting.

And, as Yulia’s client discovered, organizations that support women experiencing violence are rarely prepared to open their doors to women who use drugs. Most women’s shelters around the world require clients to abstain from drugs or alcohol, despite the clear evidence that women with a history of abuse often end up using drugs or alcohol to cope with their trauma.

When women seek treatment for their drug use, they often still find themselves in unsafe environments. Gender-specific programs are rare, and men tend to outnumber women in harm reduction and drug treatment programs, exposing women to the same patterns of control and intimidation that they face at home. This is one of the reasons that a recent UN report found that one in five women who use drugs is able to access drug treatment. For example, women make up less than two percent of patients in methadone therapy programs in Georgia.

Without access to safety and treatment, women often remain locked in the cycle of gender-based violence, and the impact on their health and that of their children can be devastating. Fear of violence makes it dangerous for women to negotiate safe sex or to refuse to share injection equipment with their partners. As a result, women exposed to intimate partner violence are 50 percent as likely to acquire HIV. But a positive HIV test is a major risk factor for violence, which means women might avoid getting tested—thereby missing the opportunity to access lifesaving medication.

Activists working to end gender-based violence need to do more to reach out to women who use drugs. There are many solutions to the crisis, from investing in harm reduction programs tailored to women, advocating to decriminalize drug use and sex work, and working to end discriminatory policies that bar women who use drugs from shelters and other sources of support.

For example, in Kyrgyzstan, Project WINGS (Women Initiating New Goals of Safety) helps women who use drugs develop safety plans and gain access to legal aid and health care. Harm reduction organizations in India, Ukraine, and Georgia are creating similar initiatives—but for this work to continue, we need more sustained investment in community-based harm reduction services that are sensitive to women’s needs.

Services alone can’t end the epidemic of violence these women are facing. Too often, women who use drugs are left out of the conversation about gender-based violence. That’s starting to change: in 2016, a group of women who use drugs participated for the first time in the global feminist forum organized by Association for Women’s Rights in Development, bringing the impact of punitive drug policies on women’s rights and health to the attention of feminist activists from around the world. Women who use drugs are also bringing their stories to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, demanding to be recognized as citizens with rights, not criminals.

During this year’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, the movement to end violence against women needs to start listening to the voices of women who use drugs—and making them part of the solution.

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dans notre Pays la loi sur la défense de la femme existe depuis longtemps la v violence faite aux est un sucés au Sénégal ou cette Loi est totalement et entièrement appliquée aujourd’hui et nous nous en réjouissons il n'existe pas de cas signalé si vous nous aidez à l'améliorer cela fera certainement partie de nos objectifs merci d'avance nous sommes à Dakar au Sénégal west Africa notre projet Fondation pour lutter contre l'exclusion des enfants

Acceptance, grass level support ,medical aid, change in policies and attitudes from the side of authorities can make difference in the plight of victims as well as organizations with back bone capable of making strong decisions without generalizing the cases brought before them depending on the situation . After all they are sitting there to do some kind of aid to the victims and not to just to follow the guidelines set in the Memorandum of Association.

Well done for standing up for the vulnerable.

My first marriage I was always beaten by then husband always he became drunk. I divorced him, I am now happily married but he still declare that he still loves me. Women let's say no to violence and in one voice let's stop domestic violence. I raised my 4 children alone and now I am a happy grandma.

I have been working with women in Reentry for 4 years. I would love to bring more dialogue to this . I am a big advocate for Restorative Justice. Please count me in to help in any way I can.

By your side !

I condone violence against women that is also a gla problem including Australia. Boys can often repeat their fathers behaviour

That's right, WINGS of Hope is quite a unique experience -- we do our best to further promote this model which is feasible by all means.

une magnifique initiative !

Just in case, here are couple data snapshots from the WINGS of Hope in Kyrgyzstan:

Only 12% of 213 WINGS of Hope project participants, i.e. women who use drugs and women engaged in sex trading, reported that had never experienced either IPV or GBV. 15% of the WINGS of Hope participants experienced violence from police staff. 37% of police staff who took part in trainings arranged for them as a part of WINGS of Hope, thought that women who use drugs and abuse on alcohol, deserve being humiliated and violated. 53% of police staff who took part in trainings arranged for them as a part of WINGS of Hope, thought that a man using violence against his wife is a private matter that shouldn’t be discussed outside the couple. Only 6% of women who use drugs and women engaged in sex trading, who participated in the 3-year WINGS of Hope project, applied for police help after experiencing violence. Only 18% of the 213 WINGS of Hope participants applied to a medical professional seeking help after the episodes of violence. 45% of the 213 WINGS of Hope participants reported that the main reason why they don’t disclose episodes of violence and don’t ask for help, is feeling embarrassed about it. 39% of the WINGS of Hope participants reported having been exposed to traumatic experiences, including sexual harassment and violence, before the age of 17. 46% of the WINGS of Hope women participants confirmed that have ever experienced overdose, and stated that they knew approximately 465 people who experienced overdose in the past 3 months.

Dear Danil, thank you for sharing the numbers that shed further light on the experiences of women who use drugs in situations of violence. This is a very important work!

This piece brings two critical issues to the forefront of discussion of domestic abuse in the former soviet countries. First, the unresponsiveness of frontline workers (police, healthcare, and social services) to gender-based violence, and second the stigmatization and exclusion of abused women who use drugs in the post-soviet context. This piece resonates strongly with my research on barriers to help-seeking from domestic violence in Kyrgyzstan. In the narratives of Kyrgyz women I studied, police and health workers were viewed as dismissive and non-responsive to abused women, often refusing to enforce the law and stigmatizing abused women (not just drug addicts). My research comes to similar conclusions about the need for sustained community-based approaches to violence and drug abuse that are sensitive to women’s needs. There needs to be more intensive sensitization of responders to create a different model, and a different mindset, for engaging the task of protecting survivors of abuse and responding to multiple issues including alcohol and drug abuse by both men and women in abusive situations. Coordinated community services combined with restorative justice and victim empowerment models, including crisis support and counseling, advocacy, and extensive rehabilitation programs, are necessary to address gender-based violence and related health problems including substance abuse. Developing coordinated community intervention is particularly relevant and timely in a place like Kyrgyzstan which is only beginning to develop social work as a professional practice integrated with public health and law enforcement. This piece should be read as a call to action across the whole region to recognize the full spectrum of women's needs in abusive situations and the imperative to de-stigmatize women's substance abuse.

Dear Saltanat, thank you for sharing your insights and fully agree with your point that we need more holistic vision for this work, based on recognition and destigmatization of women's experiences. I remain hopeful, that the ice is breaking and communities start recognizing that they can do so much more than just rely on the state to take action. I truly share your believe that the answer is in community-based solutions.

As a woman that has been arrested and prosecuted for drugs, I think the shame is a huge part of choosing or staying with abusive partners. It has taken 25 years for me to get past the negative self image that “doing time” gave me. I would like to see women have available services/classes that boost their self esteem.

Dear Denise, thank you for sharing your story - and for adding the perspective that being imprisoned for drugs adds another layer of stigma, but also systemic barriers, like accessing health care, housing, jobs, which further marginalizes women and makes them vulnerable to violence. Thank you for raising your voice!

Good article olga , congratulations!! Violence against woman based on gender is all over the intere society , is like a virus who’s very difficult to combat ,but not impossible . Your article share to us probably the most hard type of discrimination , is very sad think that this woman’s are treated as trash and no one help

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