LAHORE, Pakistan – Drug abuse is nothing new, but Pakistan is facing a two-pronged problem.
First, addicts are getting hooked earlier. The mean age of initial heroin use, according to the last National Drug Abuse Survey (2002-03), has fallen to 22 from 26.
Second, more women are using and the country refuses to take seriously the social factors that contribute to this worsening picture.
Drug addiction can start in school. Girls at one private institution used hashish in the restroom while a reporter was there. A headmistress of one girls’ college in Lahore expelled a group of her students for possessing and using narcotics on the premises.
“The problem of drug addiction among women cannot be separated from other aspects of their social conditioning … such as racism, sexism and poverty … that are essential to understanding drug abuse in women”, said Tasneem Nazir, a clinical psychologist at Lahore’s Mayo Hospital.
She said teenage girls are likely to abuse substances in order to lose weight, relieve stress or boredom, improve their mood, reduce sexual inhibitions, self-medicate depression and increase confidence. Women who seek treatment for alcohol and drug problems report a connection among domestic violence, childhood abuse, and substance abuse.
One woman said she had suffered from physical, mental and financial abuse before turning to drugs.
“I don’t know why I didn’t realise it”, the woman, 42, said of her addiction, but “I didn’t deserve what my husband put me through”.
Nazir said that to declare addiction openly is to sign a social death warrant.
“Many addicted women refuse to go into drug rehabilitation programmes. They are outpatients because of the shame and stigma attached to substance dependence and addiction. They cannot stay in rehabilitation centres for cultural reasons and go only for medicine and advice”, said Dr. Mahmooda Aftab, a clinical psychologist running a rehabilitation centre.
Nazir suggested that the way to remedy the problem is to address violence and sexual abuse, unsafe housing, unemployment, stereotyping of sexual roles, and the lack of health care and child care, all of which contribute to the depression and hopelessness linked to substance abuse by women.
Brig. Sajjad Ahmed Bakshi, force commander of the Anti Narcotics Force (ANF), Punjab, told Central Asia Online that though information on women’s drug use is limited, drug addiction has increased steadily among girls and women.
“The youth of today are a pathetic sight", he said. "Greater attention is being paid to create awareness among the people about the dangers of drug abuse and the ways to avoid it”.
Bakshi said women, especially young girls belonging to “elite backgrounds”, are becoming addicts.
Some women are not aware of the drugs they are taking. Doctors prescribe a “medicine”, and some incurious users know little about the side effects.
“There is no restriction on buying (painkillers or tranquilisers)”, he said.
Many women have been taking such medicines for months or years and have become dependent on them.
“We came to the doctor for treatment. The doctor prescribed these medicines, which I used to sleep well and to ward off worries”, said Hajra, a rehabilitation centre patient whose name was changed to ensure privacy. “I didn't know the medicines used prescribed by the doctor are poison”.
Bakshi said the ANF has established wards at eight government hospitals to provide free treatment. But most patients don’t know where they can get help, either before or after the addiction takes hold.
“It is important for women to have the knowledge and skills to be a positive force in confronting this problem, especially in drug prevention”, Bakshi said. “It is an imperative of this time that all sections of society combine their efforts to eradicate drugs from our society”.
He suggested that for complete eradication, systematic education and constant community support need to exist.
“It is essential to … implement awareness programmes effectively and intelligently", he said. "Doing so would lead to a better and (more) prosperous future for each member of the society”.
Society’s view on addiction also needs to change, according to concerned observers.
“The barriers to treatment for women must be addressed because most programmes are based on male-oriented models that are not geared to the needs of women", Mahmooda said. "The need of the time is programmes must be designed to overcome the current barriers to women’s access to and participation in treatment”.