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Why Drug Treatment Needs to Be Geared More Towards Women

While a third of global drug users are women and girls, only one in five drug treatment recipients is female.

by VICE Staff
03 March 2017, 7:00am

(Top photo: a woman in an Afghan detox centre. Photo: Flickr-user Jacksoncam viaCC BY 2.0)

This article originally appeared on VICE Alps

The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) is a United Nations body monitoring how states implement international drug control conventions. In its Annual Report, which was presented yesterday in Berlin, the INCB analyses the state of global drug use, and provides a number of recommendations to help countries take control of drug issues among its citizens.

This year's report focused especially on drug use among women and girls, which over the last few years has increased much more than drug use among men. Overdoses among women are increasing, and more and more women are being arrested for drug-related crimes. But while a third of global drug users are women and girls, only one in five people who receive treatment for drug abuse is female. 

The INCB report urges countries to develop drug prevention policies that are gender-specific, but at the same time there's hardly any research focusing on differences in drug use between men and women. That's why the report – among other things – recommends that countries start collecting gender-specific information on drug users, prioritises health care for women addicted to drugs and addresses the stigma of drug abuse by women.

Werner Sipp is president of the INCB. I spoke to him to find out how the world can make more of an effort to effectively help female drug users. 

Werner Sipp. Foto via


VICE: What are the most important findings of this year's study?
Werner Sipp: The basic aim of this year's report was to highlight how important it is to view drug-related policies and programmes through a gendered lens. The available data – which is pretty limited – shows that there's an increasing number of women among young drug users and among prisoners who are locked up for drug-related crimes. Countries rarely provide women with adequate treatment – and treatment is rarely specific for women.

Why should countries approach drug use in women differently than drug use in men?
In a lot of ways, female drug users have more to battle with than male drug users. First of all, drugs have a different effect on female bodies than on male bodies – which results in a higher mortality rate among women. Secondly, in most parts of the world, a mother going to jail for drug use or possession has much more impact on a family than when a father goes to jail. Thirdly, women have a systemic social disadvantage when they're trying to get access to treatment for their drug use. 

How so?
Women are much more harshly judged for drug abuse than men – especially when they're pregnant. Because of that stigma, they can be more hesitant to get treatment. And then there's the issue of child care – women who are in some way dependent on drugs may not try to find help because they're afraid of losing custody of their children. 

"We're always one step behind – we can't control a drug that's just entering the market yet."

How do you think that could be fixed?
One option would be to offer more treatment services exclusively to women. When Iran introduced women-only drug treatment services, the number of women who underwent treatment increased significantly. But stigmas like this are so deeply rooted in society. You can't change that in a short amount of time – just look at how long it's taken western society to change its views on homosexuality, for example. We can urge authorities in countries to actively work against social stigmas, but that's about all we can do.

How effective are your recommendations in countries like Afghanistan, for example, where a lot of drugs are produced and state institutions are weak or even corrupt?
You're right – Afghanistan is in a very difficult situation. It's currently producing 90 percent of the global market's opium, and the government's impact on drug control has further diminished in many parts of the country. At the same time, the international community is retreating from Afghanistan, and that vacuum is filled by the Taliban or ISIS – which further undermines the government's control. The INCB doesn't have any sanctioning power – all we can do is keep the dialogue with countries open.

There are constantly new kinds of drugs invented and introduced – how exactly do you decide on whether they should be an illegal substance or not? 
Oh, we're always one step behind – we can't control a drug that's just entering the market yet. Before a drug is added to the list of prohibited substances, the WHO needs to run a number of tests to prove it's actually harmful. They can test maybe ten substances a year, but there are hundreds of new substances on the market every year. We obviously need a new system for that, and how to deal with this will be one of the key questions to answer in the future.

Thanks, Werner.

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