Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Desperate Women Seek Solace in Drugs

Long-suffering women turn to opium in order to deal with the harsh realities of Afghan life.
By Parween Tulwasa

An increasing number of Afghan women are turning to drugs to help them cope with bereavement and displacement caused by 23 years of savage war, a recent survey has shown.


Afghanistan is widely known as the world’s major producer of opium - from which heroin is produced - but until relatively recently was not thought to have a serious drug problem of its own among its deeply religious and conservative population.


However, a recent survey by the Nejat Centre in Kabul, the only organisation in the country treating drug addiction, showed there were over 300 women addicts in the capital Kabul alone, mainly hooked on opium though some use hashish.


“We have already treated 100 addicted women, and are currently handling 20 other cases,” Shah Begum, who works at the centre, told the IWPR. “We are also treating some children born to addicted mothers.”


The process comes in four stages: identification of addicts by knocking on doors in the poorer districts of the overcrowded capital; registration of those likely or willing to benefit from being treated; the treatment stage, which takes around a month and is mainly done in the patient’s home; and finally a control period in which patients are monitored for a year to ensure they stay free of the drug.


Most of the women picked up the habit at overcrowded refugee camps across the border in Pakistan where ordinary Afghans fled as war against the occupying Soviet army gave way to bitter fighting among Islamic groups, and finally to the five-year rule of the hard line Taleban.


The Taleban initially exploited the drugs trade, earning an estimated 40-45 US dollars a year for the student militia, then cut it back drastically in 1999 under international pressure. They turned on the tap again when US and British forces began attacking them in October last year.


The United Nations drug agency reported late last year that opium production had reached 3,400 tonnes, a huge increase over the previous year’s 185 tonnes, but still 20 per cent down on the record high of 1999, when Afghanistan was providing 70 per cent of the world’s opium.


Setaara, another worker at the centre, said, “These women have not become addicted for pleasure. The main cause of their addiction is 23 years of war. Most of them start using opium to help them cope with their problems, but over time it becomes a habit.”


Sarwa, 50, said she was being treated for opium addiction, but was uncertain whether she could be cured, as it had already caused serious damage to her veins.


“It will be very difficult for me to give it up,” she said.


“I lost two sons and a young daughter during the various wars. My home was destroyed by a rocket, forcing me to flee abroad with what remained of my family. As a refugee I faced a lot of new problems, and in order to forget them I started smoking opium.”


Rona, 45, recently returned from a refugee camp, also blamed the wars for her addiction. “First my 16-year-old nephew was killed, then a year later his mother and young sisters also died, and my husband was seriously injured. To cope with all this I started smoking opium at night. Now I eat it during the day as well,” she said.


Another woman waiting for treatment at the Nijat Centre, who declined to give here name, said she had been a regular hashish user but decided to try opium on the advice of friends.


“After a while the effect of the drug wore off, and I needed more,” said the woman, who said she was 35 though she looked to be at least 50. “As a result I started suffering from insomnia. I took tablets for that, but it didn’t help, so I took up hashish again as well.”


The woman, who has three children, admitted that she spent most of the money earned by her hard-working sons on feeding her habit, augmented by occasional sales of household equipment.


According to anti-drug workers, the situation is much worse in Afghanistan’s conservative northern provinces, where many women support their families by weaving carpets, and regularly give opium to their children so they don’t disturb them at work. The children quickly pick up the habit, and are addicted for life, unless they come to the attention of the Nejat Centre.


In the whole of Afghanistan, there is only one single 100-bed hospital in Kabul where addicts are treated alongside the mentally ill. Because of the number of addicts, patients are sleeping in the corridors. None of the beds are for women.


A few years ago, the Nejat Centre set up regional offices for addicts, but closed them two years ago for lack of funds. One of them was in Badakhshan, a remote and mountainous region close to the border with Tajikistan - one of the most productive poppy-growing areas in the country - estimated to have 5,000 opium addicts.


Its remote location means that the province does not attract the attention of the authorities, and southern-based drug lords have been relocating in large numbers to what is fast becoming the centre of the opium industry.


Parween Tulwasa is a freelance journalist in Kabul