How women in Afghanistan are recovering from rising drug addiction

By Meha Dixit | 10 July 2018

Abundant sunlight, spotless rooms with vibrant drawings on the walls, and children carelessly running around—the Afghan Relief Committee compound looked like a well-kept day-care centre. It was, however, a drug de-addiction facility for women and children in Herat, a province in north-western Afghanistan. The ARC is a non-governmental organisation that works with drug addicts in Afghanistan and runs de-addiction centres across the country.

In one corner of a playroom for children at the centre, a seven-year-old girl dressed in a black hijab and fawn kurta, sat quietly around a table with other children. The ARC staff told me she was addicted to heroin when she was brought to the facility. She picked up the habit after seeing her mother and 11-year-old sister consume the drug frequently. Both were with her at the centre.

Rising unemployment, decades of conflict and a thriving illicit narcotics industry have aggravated Afghanistan’s internal drug problem. According to the Afghan Ministry of Public Health, more than three million people in the country are addicted to drugs, including one million women and over 100,000 children. 

In 2015, the Afghanistan National Drug Use Survey revealed startling details about the degree of drug use in the country. According to the report, drug use affected 31 percent of Afghan households, with a greater penetration among rural households compared to urban ones. The two drugs most frequently used were opioids and cannabis. According to the survey, nine percent of the children in Afghanistan, including one-year olds, tested positive for drugs. The report notes that some of these children may not have been consuming drugs intentionally and could have tested positive from environmental exposure or administration of the drug by an adult.

Despite the prevalent consumption, it is difficult to find official information about drug use in Afghanistan. In many areas of rural Afghanistan, community leaders are hesitant to reveal accurate information on drug consumption due to social stigmas. Identifying women drug users proves to be even more challenging because women mostly ingest drugs by swallowing them, rather than smoking openly. According to a 2005 survey by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the consumption patterns among women are less public than those of men. It noted, “Most pharmaceutical and opium use by women occurs in the home, and women typically eat opium rather than smoke it, which makes their drug use less visible to other members of the community.”

The drug problem is especially prevalent in Afghanistan’s Herat province, which borders Iran. I travelled to Herat in January 2018. Some of the health workers I met said the easy availability of drugs and the inflow of Afghan returnees from Iran—where drug use is high—has fuelled addiction in the province. According to a 2017 report by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, “Officials warn that the rates of addiction in women are rising, with one estimate, in a 2017 report by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, putting the rate of drug use as high as one in every three women.”

The IWPR report further notes that officials estimate that there are “between 60,000 and 70,000 drug users in Herat, of which approximately 8,000 are women, although the actual figures may be much higher.” Many NGO workers I spoke to, in Herat and Kabul, said that women are often influenced to consume drugs by seeing other relatives—both men and women—do so.

At the ARC in Herat, the first woman I met was a lively 19-year-old who began consuming drugs after a family member said it would help her cope with her stress. A resident of Shindan in the Herat province, she was married to a boy from Kandahar when she was just 13 years old. She said he would frequently beat her up. Four years later, she decided to move back to Shindan, with her daughter and son, to be with her parents. As we sat talking with other former women drug addicts, she leaned towards her three-year-old daughter, whom she had brought to the centre. “My parents do not have any source of income and the responsibility of raising two children took a toll on me,” she said. “Our poor economic condition triggered a lot of stress.”

None of her siblings—four brothers and one sister—have a stable job. One day, as she talked about her situation, her uncle’s wife, an opium addict, suggested she consume heroin. “She told me it will calm me down. From then on she would offer me heroin for free, which we would smoke up in private,” the 19-year-old said.

The ARC in Herat is one of the few facilities for women and child addicts in the province. It was first established a few years ago in Peshawar, Pakistan by Afghan refugees. Its main office is located in Kabul. The women I spoke to at the ARC were not willing to share their real names, and have instead been identified in the order I met them.

A nurse screens a client during her detoxification phase at the Afghan Relief Committee center in Herat. (Courtesy Afghanistan Relief Committee)

The second woman I interviewed, a 30-year-old resident of Herat’s Islam Qala, a town bordering Iran, was also influenced by a close relative. She had been consuming drugs for 12 years before she came to the ARC. She said her husband is in the Afghan military, stationed at the Afghan-Iran border, and earns reasonably well. I asked her if he was also addicted to drugs.“My husband has never taken drugs, and in fact, it was him who persuaded me to join ARC for de-addiction,” she said. “I would take money from him to buy drugs.” She said she was introduced to them through her sister-in-law and that they would both privately smoke heroin and the synthetic drug, crystal methamphetamine.

As we spoke, a social worker at the centre interrupted. “She weaves lovely silk carpets,” the worker said. The second woman smiled wryly. “I used to, but when I began consuming drugs I slowly stopped,” she said. The ARC’s de-addiction programme includes carpet weaving.

The third woman I interviewed was also introduced to opium by a family member. The 45-year-old had been through detoxification for over a month when we met, and told me that she was feeling better. She is a resident of Qurian in the Herat province and has six children—four sons and two daughters. Among them, three boys and one girl were also addicted to drugs and admitted with her at the centre. Her husband, who owns a small shop and frequently travels to Iran to sell clothes, rarely takes drugs. “I began consuming drugs 10 years ago, while my daughter, who is aged 13, got into the habit when she was either eight or nine years old,” the woman said, with a vacant look. “My daughter began consuming crystal methamphetamine on her own.”

The fourth woman, a 44-year-old resident of the Badghis province, bordering Turkmenistan, told me she began consuming opium regularly because she felt she could work better after taking the drug. Dressed in a black hijab and a violet kurta, she recalled that she used to be a professional carpet weaver, weaving silk carpets that she would sell for around 40,000 Afghani—over Rs 37,000—in Turkmenistan. She comes from a well-off family and has a daughter and a son. Her husband is a farmer who grows vegetables, wheat, and opium. “My husband and children never got addicted,” she said. “One day, around six to seven years ago, I happened to try opium from our farm and discovered I could weave carpets faster. From then on, I began to ingest the drug regularly to increase my productivity.”

One of my youngest interviewees at the ARC was a ten-year-old Herati boy. Young boys whose mothers are at the facility are also housed at the same centre. He became addicted to both opium and crystal methamphetamine through his parents, who are also addicts. According to the staff at the de-addiction centres and the doctors I spoke to in Kabul, the children are either given drugs by older family members or begin consuming drugs after seeing relatives or peers.

Though there is no official data on the number of child drug addicts in Herat, Wasa Foundation, an organisation that focuses on the protection of women and child rights, documented at least 5,500 child addicts in Herat in 2016. The survey reportedly found that children who lived on the streets were easily influenced and recruited by drug smugglers, and eventually grew addicted to the drugs themselves.

In March 2018, TOLOnews, a television channel in Afghanistan, reported that there are only 20 drug rehabilitation centres across the country that treat women and children. Given the rising number of women and children drug addicts, this is proving insufficient.

In Herat province, too, there are only a few clinics that treat drug addicts, some of which do not admit women. The ARC runs two centres for women and children in the province—a 55-bed facility and a 30-bed facility. The addicts are kept at the centre for 45 days. Both women and children undergo 10 days of detoxification. The centres offer basic education facilities, psychological and group counselling, outdoor activities and vocational training. They also provide a module for addiction prevention, which includes knowledge about drugs, communication skills, art therapy, nutrition, hygiene and coping with trauma. Former addicts are also referred to outside organisations for suitable jobs.

In addition, the ARC’s mobile teams provide a variety of services for women and children in all districts of the province that are relatively secure and do not have a strong presence of the Taliban. These include creating awareness about drug-related problems, identifying those who are affected, providing medical treatment, and following up one year after the patient is discharged from the de-addiction centre. The teams also reach out to men in the province to motivate the women in their family to seek treatment.

The first woman I met from Shindan had approached the ARC after their awareness campaign. When we met, she had gone through six days of detoxification, and her vocational training—in sewing—was about to begin. “I am feeling happy and also thinking of quitting heroin,” she said, as she turned away from me to hold her daughter’s hands.

As I walked around the ARC centre with its coordinator, I noticed a small wall carpet with a captivating image of the blue-domed Great Mosque of Herat. The coordinator told me that the fourth woman, from the Bagdhis province, had woven the carpet. She had already finished weaving two carpets during her stay at the centre. At the time, she had almost completed her de-addiction course. “I will be discharged in two days,” she said. “I am feeling healthy now.” The coordinator then took me to the room where other carpets woven by the former addicts were kept. The small room was brightened by the display of exquisite wall carpets, large and small, portraying Herat’s spectacular architecture and everyday life.

Most women I met at the ARC facility appeared happy with their treatment. The second woman I met had been at the centre for 40 days, and was scheduled to go home in another five. When I asked how she was feeling, she responded, “Like I am born again.”

Meha Dixit has a PhD in International Politics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, has taught at Kashmir University and worked with Amnesty International.

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