Charne Roberts, the Advocacy and Engagement Officer of the South African Network of People Who Use Drugs (SANPUD), delves into the human rights violations experienced by women who use drugs. She highlights the urgent need for decriminalisation to empower these women and end gender-based violence. By exploring practical ways to involve these women in policy design, Roberts calls for policies that put people first and bring us closer to ending gender-based violence.
Decriminalising drugs provides an opportunity to address drug use as a public health issue rather than a criminal one, and by shifting the focus from punishment to support, we can create an environment where individuals are likely to seek help, treatment, and harm reduction services without fear of legal repercussions.
This ultimately leads to improved health outcomes, reduced transmission of diseases, and a decrease in overdose rates.
People who use drugs, particularly those who are street-based and do not have a physical address, are frequently refused services. Because of their appearance, they are subjected to humiliation and turned away without medication or assistance.
They also face constant harassment from police, metro police, and security guards who confiscate sterile needles and syringes, methadone, and other medical supplies and then make unlawful arrests.
It’s so much worse for the women who use drugs. They are often sexually violated by the police when they are caught with drugs. Some even get drugs planted on them and are told nobody will believe their word over that of an officer of the law.
Such women are forced to give sexual favours to escape arrest, or else they are arrested, denied treatment, and end up suffering from withdrawals.
When I look at the relationship between decriminalisation of drugs and feminist policy, I see a two-way approach depending on different perspectives.
Some feminists argue that decriminalisation of drugs can have positive implications for women. They contend that current drug policies disproportionately impact women, particularly those who are marginalised or vulnerable, such as women who use drugs or women in low-income communities.
It is argued that by shifting from a criminal justice approach to a public health and harm reduction approach, decriminalisation can help address issues related to addiction and substance use, leading to better support and treatment options for women.
Others, however, have concerns about the potential negative consequences of drug decriminalisation for women. They worry that decriminalisation may aggravate existing gender inequalities and increase the risk of exploitation and violence against women.
For example, they argue that in a context where drug trafficking is prevalent, women may be affected by organised crime and human trafficking networks. They say that even if drugs were to be decriminalised it wouldn’t mean the end of harassment, and women would still be marginalised.
I do not think that decriminalisation alone is the solution to deal with the promotion of the rights of women who use drugs. Decriminalisation of drugs is only one aspect.
Women should be taking ownership of their bodies; body autonomy should be a right, whether you are speaking about abortion or the use of drugs.
However, for that to happen, other mechanisms need to be put in place for the continued protection of women’s rights so that they can exercise their full human and socioeconomic rights.
So how do we promote meaningful engagement with our communities in decision-making processes?
The first thing is to empower our women and remove barriers to their participation. Trust needs to be built between decision-makers and women who use drugs.
There needs to be clear communication, active listening, and the demonstration of genuine commitment when incorporating the perspective of women who use drugs into policy.
Secondly, it is through representation, by ensuring that women who use drugs have a seat at the table in decision-making processes.
This can involve actively inviting them to participate in policy discussions, forming advisory groups or committees, or establishing designated positions for people with lived experience within relevant organisations.
What SANPUD, in collaboration with key role players, stakeholders, and allies, has done to achieve this is to assist with the establishment of networks that we have linked to Local Drug Action Committees and the Central Drug Authority.
There needs to be funding and support for peer-led initiatives and organisations that are led by and for women who use drugs. These initiatives are often better positioned to understand the needs and experiences of this community and can provide valuable insights for policy discussions.
SANPUD has included people who use drugs and women in policy-making bodies by educating the community on their rights and conducting various trainings for community-led organisations on decriminalisation.
Challenging stigma and misconceptions are crucial for creating an enabling environment for meaningful engagements.
SANPUD has achieved this by collaborating with SAPS to roll out a dignity diversity training programme to sensitise police officials on how best to treat people who use drugs, and we have provided similar sensitization training for health care workers.
Another key advocacy tool that promotes the meaningful participation of women who use drugs are campaigns. One of the campaigns that I have been a part of is the FemAlive campaign, which is an advocacy movement that promotes human rights and is demonstrated through a march.
During this march, which also promotes speaking out against gender-based violence, women who use drugs, community organisations, and even some SAPS members come together and take a stance to say that the bodies of women who use drugs are not public property to be abused.
What women choose to put in their bodies does not make them less human, nor does it give the next person the right to use, abuse, or even murder them.
It is important to note that decriminalisation should not mean a total disregard for the potential risks associated with drug use. Rather, it allows for a more refined approach by redirecting resources from criminal justice towards prevention, harm reduction, and evidence-based treatment programmes.
By focusing on education, rehabilitation, and support services, we can create a society that values the wellbeing of women who use drugs.
Decriminalisation empowers individuals who use drugs by acknowledging their human rights.
When drug use is decriminalised, the stigma associated with it is diminished, allowing for more open conversations and engagements with people who use drugs.
This fosters an environment where individuals feel empowered to seek information, support, and education, leading to informed decision-making and reducing the risk of harm.