Turkmenistan: Women Drawn into Drug Trade

Poverty and the ready availability of heroin have led many women to take up drug dealing.

Turkmenistan: Women Drawn into Drug Trade

Poverty and the ready availability of heroin have led many women to take up drug dealing.

“A friend got me into drug dealing,” recalled Zohra, a resident of the Turkmen capital Ashgabat who recently completed a year-long jail term for drug offences.


“She felt sorry for my family – we had virtually nothing to eat, my husband had been unemployed for a year and we’ve got four children. So she offered me some work.”



With its long, porous border with Afghanistan – the world’s biggest source of heroin – Turkmenistan is on the transit route north to markets in Russia and the rest of Europe, and this has inevitably left the country prey to drug smugglers.



The resurgence in opium-poppy growing in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taleban – who had imposed a ban on the crop before they were ousted by United States-led Coalition forces in late 2001 – has led to a boom in exports. And because the raw opium is increasingly processed into heroin inside the country, the drug is much easier to conceal and transport.



As in other transit-route countries, the growth of smuggling networks has meant narcotics are more readily available at near-wholesale prices, leading to a rise in addiction across Turkmenistan. The problem has been compounded by poverty which drives some to use or sell drugs, for want of better options.



There is a visible correlation between the use of hard drugs in Ashgabat and prostitution, with many sex workers preferring to be paid in heroin rather than cash.



IWPR interviews reveal that many other women in this traditionally conservative society get into the drugs trade just to feed and clothe their families. Others get involved through close relatives who use or deal illicit drugs.



Whatever their history, all risk a long stretch in one of Turkmenistan’s brutal prisons.



Zohra explained how her own foray into dealing was carefully managed by middlemen, “A man brought the goods and came to collect the money in the evening. I didn’t know his name or where he lived, I didn’t have any phone or contact details.



“They also found my buyers for me. They had it all sewn up.”



Even the danger of being caught seemed to have been taken care of. “Our local policeman was in the know,” said Zohra. “And once a week, under instruction from my contact, I gave him a sum of money.”



Nazsoltan, a young woman who was released from jail in 2004 under an amnesty, had a similar story to tell, “I have three small children, my husband lost his job three years ago and started drinking out of hopelessness and despair.... There’s nowhere I can find work, I’m uneducated.”



“Some people I know suggested I sell drugs and take a percentage of the sales,” she went on. “I worked it out, reckoned that I could support the family on the income and took the risk.”



For others, the journey into the drug world begins as an effort to stabilise partners who are themselves addicts. “If they don’t get their daily fix, they’ll cart everything out of the house and sell it for next to nothing,” explained Aina, who was amnestied in December 2004 after doing time for a drugs conviction.



“I have children and elderly parents. So I decided it would be better if I were dealing myself, since that way I could earn enough to buy my husband’s dose and food for the family. I didn’t even think I could get a prison sentence.”



“What are things coming to?” asked Yusup-Aga, a retired grandfather who has witnessed similar stories from people in his village. “More and more often fathers and sons are becoming addicts, while the mother sells drugs by day, buys drugs with the proceeds and in the evening gives them to her husband and maybe her son.”



Even when women are not themselves involved in dealing or using drugs, it is not uncommon for them to take the rap when their husbands are caught – the idea being that a woman will get a softer sentence.



“My neighbour sells drugs and everyone around here knows. People come straight to his house to buy the smack,” said a retired man who lives in a suburb of Ashgabat, and who like many other interviewees did not want to be named.



“But he’s said several times that if anything happens, his wife will take the blame. They have three small children... and the law won’t treat her as harshly. I just don’t know what his wife thinks about it all.”



Women typically have little choice in such situations, not only because Turkmen women are supposed to be submissive to male relatives, but also because it is often the husband’s drug dealing that feeds their family. If he goes to jail, that support falls away.



Instead, the women place their hopes in the prison amnesty which occurs at the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan every year. Around 10,000 prisoners get out of jail under the annual amnesty for offences that can include drug dealing, as well as theft and other serious crimes.



But even if this gamble pays off, any length of time in one of the country’s prisons is something not to be taken lightly. While female prisons in Turkmenistan are somewhat better than those for men, conditions in them are still dire.



In a prison camp for women near Tashauz in the north of the country, those prisoners with some money can buy themselves a place in a comparatively comfortable cell. But the majority are forced to sit out their sentence in standard rooms, which are draughty in winter and become stifling in the 40 degrees heat of summer.



Inmates survive on a diet of soup made of cattle fodder, and run the risk of becoming infected with tuberculosis and dysentery, made worse by the virtual lack of medical services.



“I had to spend five months in a communal cell,” recalled former drug dealer Gozel. “When one of my cellmates received bread in a parcel it was like a celebration, because the soup they gave us didn’t even have noodles in it…. You wouldn’t give pigs that sort of food.”



Gozel herself didn’t receive any food parcels. “My husband sold everything in the house to satisfy his addiction,” she explained. “I was the only breadwinner and when I was in prison [my family] were nearly starving too.”



Like a great many other women who complete prison terms for drug dealing in Turkmenistan, Gozel runs a high risk of ending up back there in the future.



“I’ve been home a few months and I’ve realised that the only way is for me to keep on selling heroin, because I just can’t earn enough money for food any other way,” she said.



“I know I might be sent back to prison but I’m prepared to sacrifice years of my life for the sake of my children.”



This report was produced as part of IWPR’s Women’s Reporting & Dialogue Programme.


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