Frequently Asked Questions

Why global drug policy and women?

As the United Nations prepares to convene its 2016 U.N. General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs, the reassessment of global drug policy must take into account the toll that punitive drug laws has taken on women worldwide. 

Rising incarceration of women is a global problem. 

Women around the world are being incarcerated for minor, nonviolent drug-related crimes at an alarming rate. In Latin America between 2006 and 2011, the women’s prison population increased from 40,000 to 74,000, with some facing sentences as long as 30 years and primarily for drug offenses. In the period from 1977 to 2013, the number of women in U.S. prisons increased by 938 percent. Across Europe and Central Asia, 28 percent of all women incarcerated in that region are serving time for drug-related offenses. And, in Thailand, where women make up the largest percentage of total jailed country populations worldwide (14.6%), reports claim that nearly half of incarcerated women are serving time for trafficking or possession of methamphetamine.

Families are separated, destabilized and further impoverished. 

Drug policies focusing on punishment not only deprive women of their freedom, but also undermine the well-being of children who are then forcibly separated from their mothers or are incarcerated with them. Research also demonstrates that women who are themselves arrested or who live in communities with high incarceration rates for non-violent drug offenses have greater likelihood of economic instability. As most women worldwide are primary caretakers for families, households where women are incarcerated are plunged deeper into poverty. 

Violence fueled by drugs and drug policy translates into more gender-based violence. 

With worldwide recognition that gender-based violence is a pandemic, global drug policies have only added to this harm and subjected more women to violence. Research has revealed that women are subject to abuse and sexual assault both by those involved in the drug trade and by those charged with enforcing drug laws. In a recent survey in Kyrgyzstan, 81 percent of women in harm reduction programs reported surviving sexual, physical or other injurious violence at the hands of their partner, family or police. In the United States, surveys have reported that 25-57 percent of women in drug treatment programs experienced intimate partner violence in the previous year compared to about 2 percent of the general population. On a larger level, both the drug trade and enforcement efforts have undermined civil society and overall security in many nations. 

That same violence contributes to forced migration and displacement — which, again, decrease women’s safety. 

The seemingly endless violence fueled by the “war on drugs” has driven women to migrate in search of safety and opportunity. When women migrate across borders, they are more vulnerable to exploitation, sexual violence, physical assault, separation from children, and subjection to expulsion, imprisonment, and other penalties as a result of legal status.

Women face significant barriers to accessing appropriate drug treatment. 

Women around the world struggling with substance abuse and wanting help are often denied treatment as a result of policies that emphasize punishment and interdiction. In Russia, for example, women are denied access to the best treatment as a result of the government’s ban on methadone and other medication-assisted treatments (MAT) for opioid addiction. In some U.S. states, women who seek help may be reported to authorities and arrested or detained or face civil child abuse and neglect allegations because they have obtained methadone or other MATs while pregnant or parenting.

Even if women seek treatment, accessing affordable, scientifically sound, and gender-appropriate treatment for drug dependence is too often distant dream. Treatment services are rarely designed specifically for women, even though women differ greatly from men the progression and severity of their drug dependence; their responsiveness to treatment; and the physical and psychological problems they experience. 

Women drug users face gender-specific reproductive-health risks and challenges.

People who use drugs have higher risks of transmittable infections, such as HIV and hepatitis C. Women who use drugs may be in particular need of reproductive health information and care. Cocaine and many opiates may interfere with the menstrual cycle so that women may be at risk of unplanned pregnancy or may be unaware of being pregnant and thus may delay seeking prenatal care or drug-related health services. Integrated reproductive and drug-related services — or easy referral between the two by health professionals aware of the links — are needed but are often lacking. And, finally, state policies may coerce women with drug dependency issues to make reproductive-health decisions such as sterilization, use of long-acting contraceptives or abortion. 

When governments focusing on destroying drug crops like coca or opium poppies, they also often destroy women’s economic security and threaten their health. 

Policies that destroy drug crops — often at the expense of other non-drug agriculture and the environment — also strike at the income and survival of women and their families. In many parts of the world, farming remains the main source of money, and women tend to have greater responsibility for tending crops than men. Uprooting or burning crops leaves a lasting effect on whether families can stay in their homes, make a living, and stay healthy and free from the chemicals often used in crop eradication efforts. 

Cultural norms about women's roles, particularly motherhood, mean that women's drug use or involvement in drug trafficking is particularly stigmatized. 

Though ideas about womanhood are culturally specific, they typically don’t include the use of or sale of drugs. Because drugs are criminalized around the world, women who use or sell drugs are often labeled “bad” women or mothers. Notions that women involved in drugs are immoral contribute to stigma and subject women to harsh penalties because their drug offenses may also offend cultural sensibilities. 

About This Photo

Mexican Marines in an operation against a prominent drug cartel. (Credit Image: Creative Commons Wikimedia)