We Cannot Achieve Gender Equality without Drug Policy Reform

By Patrick Tindana, Consultant, UNDP

On 27th September, 2015, UN Member States adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These ambitious goals aim to “end poverty and hunger…to ensure that all human beings can fulfill their potential in dignity and equality...” by 2030.  Notably, governments also committed to “reaching the furthest behind first”.  It follows then that, in order to realize these goals, women who use drugs and or who are marginalized by the current drug control systems deserve specific attention.

Goal 5, aims to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, including by strengthening laws and policies to end gender-based discrimination, but how can we achieve gender equality unless we address the factors that put so many women behind bars for small drug offences?  In some countries in the Americas, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, 40 – 70 percent of women are imprisoned for low-level, non-violent drug offences.  Many of these women are arrested for carrying or selling small quantities of drugs.  While they are often employed at the lowest levels, they often face the same harsh consequences, including severe criminal penalties, as those with greater involvement in the drug trade. These women are often young, poor and the main or sole breadwinners of their families.  Since women are often the primary caregivers, when they are locked up, their children may have no one to care for them.  These young children may have painfully few options for survival other than criminal activity.  Furthermore, women and girls who use drugs may be forced to have sex to avoid arrest or punishment by law enforcement.  Additionally, in some countries, women convicted of drug-related offences are the fastest growing population.  One in four women in European and Central Asian prisons is incarcerated for drug-related offenses.  Consequently, it will be difficult to achieve SDG 5 if we ignore the caring responsibilities of incarcerated women, the repercussions that society face because of their arrests, and the grim realities faced by the families they leave behind.

Given the interlinked nature of the SDGs, ignoring inequalities faced by women under the current drug control policy impedes the progress of the other goals and targets.  Take Goal 1 for example – we cannot “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” when current drug policies inflict crippling harms on women and their prospects for employment.  Incarceration exacerbates the poverty and social exclusion of women prisoners and their families, as having a criminal record may bar them from future employment, education, housing and social welfare benefits.  Poor or otherwise marginalized women may also become involved in the drug trade because discrimination limits their opportunities for education and employment.

Without addressing the inequality faced by women who use drugs, achieving success on universal health coverage (target 3.8) would also be jeopardized.  It is difficult to imagine how we will “strengthen the prevention and treatment of substance abuse, including drug abuse” (target 3.5) without addressing laws and policies that impede the access of women who use drugs to life-saving healthcare and other social services?  Women often face gender-based discrimination in access to harm reduction and other services.  For instance, in countries that keep national registries for drug dependence, women who use drugs are dissuaded from seeking harm reduction, HIV prevention and drug treatment. Consequently, this can fuel HIV, viral hepatitis and tuberculosis.

On 19th – 21st April, UN Member States will gather in New York for a United Nations General Assembly Special Session on drugs.  As they review the successes and failures of international drug control policies, they should be conscious of their commitment to address the inequalities faced by women under the current drug control system.  Improving international drug control policy is not just a good idea - it is critical to ensuring women’s equality.