Drug Abuse And The Indian Woman
Woman's Era|July 2019

Its an epidemic.

Gaver Chatterjee

Drug abuse in India has been a living reality for eons but the last couple of decades has seen it spiralling across socioeconomic classes. Significantly, the use of drugs by women has also seen a steady rise in the country during the contemporary era, across age groups, though facilities for de-addiction have not kept pace with this trend. In a society which is quick to stigmatize a woman, this makes for an interesting investigation.

Substance abuse…on the rise amongst Indian women

“I have been running a deaddiction centre for males for the past 12 years, but I am increasingly getting regular calls from families of women who are addicted,” says Avijit Roy who runs the Alyana Rehabilitation Centre in Kolkata. Roy who is the founder and owner of the centre is also a counsellor and he says that the number of drug users he encounters today are almost equal amongst genders. What is more, they exist across age groups. “Over the past 15 years or so, the women who have been coming to me for counselling have often been in the age range of 30 to 40 years,” he says. “But in the more recent years, while I am seeing more and more cases of females turning to substance abuse, I am also seeing women turning to drugs at an increasingly younger age. I would really like to set up a rehabilitation centre for women in Kolkata,” he says.

Substance use disorder in women

A report by Pratima Murthy and Prabhat Chand published by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences on their website, states; Abuse in women is a growing concern in India. While traditional surveys have been unable to provide insights into this hidden problem, recent studies of special population and qualitative research suggests that alcohol, tobacco, opiates and sedatives are drugs that are commonly abused by women from diverse backgrounds. Patterns of use across the country vary. However, some common themes appear to be an early onset use in the context of a heterosexual relationship, greater emotional problems and poor social support. Women are more vulnerable to the adverse physical consequences of substance use. The environment plays a significant role in development of substance abuse in addition to genetic vulnerability. There are specific issues with regard to treatment of substance use in women, which include delay in recognition of the problem, associated stigma, lack of support systems for treatment and followup and other social and psychological issues.

While official statistics are limited, most researchers will vouch for it that drug abuse amongst females in India is on a definitive upward curve across socioeconomic classes. While worried parents are wondering how they will keep their school and college-going children away from it, it is often women who are parents themselves or of an age to be so, who are turning to drug use, or who have been hooked onto it from their younger days and unable to shake off the habit. And this trend seems to be consistent with the international scenario.

Over the last two decades, the use of illegal drugs has spread to practically every part of the globe, reports a publication of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India and United Nations International Drug Control Programme, Regional Office for South Asia. Published in year 2002, the report titled Women and Drug Abuse: The Problem in India, claims no nation remains immune to the devastating problems caused by drug abuse. Perhaps the biggest problem is that it makes its deepest impression on those most vulnerable. Women, who traditionally appeared to have some kind of immunity to drug abuse, at least in terms of ‘social inoculation’, are now recognised as also being susceptible to drug use and its related problems.

Experts across Indian cities are in agreement. Says renowned Mumbai based child and adolescent psychiatrist and psychotherapist Dr Zirak Marker “The thumb rule is that drug usage is higher amongst males than amongst females but of late I am finding that cases of drug usage amongst males and females is equally alarmingly on the rise. I am not exaggerating when I say that I receive calls practically every day from families whose members are users and it is becoming increasingly common to have a female user’s family or friends calling me.”

Concurs the Delhi-based Anida David, Additional Secretary of the Indian Drug Users Forum Asian network; “Drug usage amongst women has gone really high across socio-economic classes but it remains behind the curtains especially amongst women. Women in India (as in many other parts of the world) are increasingly turning to drugs…..it is present everywhere-colleges, workplaces, at discos and parties and it is definitely not a guy thing anymore. Nor is it restricted largely to women from the disadvantaged sections of society who are commonly seen as turning to substance abuse because of the difficulties they face in their day-to-day life. It is present across society and there are many women from middle class as well as very wealthy families who are into substance abuse.”Definitely not a guy thing anymore, but is it a completely new phenomenon for women to be drug users?

Drug abuse amongst women

Apparently not, but with research on the topic of women and drug abuse being extremely limited, information on the subject is misty. Says Delhi-based Rehabilitation Psychologist Loveleena Singh; “Drug abuse amongst women is on the rise certainly, especially in urban areas, but it is not as if women in India have not been exposed to drugs in the past. It has always been there especially in the rural area, where men and women alike have been using their desi substances on a regular basis.” Of course, the consumption of bhang during Holi has been around forever, in both rural and urban areas. Excerpts from the July 2015 report Substance use in women: Current status and Future Directions by Rakesh Lal, Koushik Sinha Deb and Swati Kedia, published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry in July 2015 states; Psychoactive substance use, until recently, has largely been perceived as a male problem and research, as a result, has been largely androcentric and insensitive to gender variations.

Only around the mid-1970s, partly prompted by the then ongoing women's liberation movement, institutes like the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism started making efforts to garner scientific and public attention on gender issues. Subsequently, with the feminisation of HIV epidemic and the obvious role of drug use in catalysing its spread, focus on women and substance use became necessary. The report goes on to state data from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA) in 2000 from US similarly showed that 5 per cent of women, as compared to 7.7 per cent men, presently used illicit substances.

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