Feature story

Recognizing the needs of female injecting drug users in north-east India

13 September 2011

A version of this story was first published at unodc.org

Across north-east India, women affected by drug use are finding safe spaces dedicated to their particular needs.

Twenty-two year old Chawngmawii from Mizoram state in north-east India left home when she was 16. Having suffered abuse while growing up, she started living on the streets and injecting drugs. She turned to sex work to support her drug habit and was diagnosed with HIV in 2008.

With the help of a local organization, Chawngmawii went to a centre that works with people who use drugs, one of a number set up by the state and supported by the National AIDS Control Programme. However, she says she felt unwelcome because the centre was mostly geared towards male clients.

Chawngmawii's story is similar to what many women face in north-east India. Despite the availability of free services for people who use drugs through both government hospitals and non-governmental organizations, a significant proportion of women have reported they haven’t been able to access treatment for HIV. The lack of trained female service providers often deters women from seeking help, and the existing drop-in centres are primarily used by men.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), with the support of Australia’s AusAID and UNAIDS, is working with the Government of India to improve the quality and coverage of services for drug treatment. Injecting drug use is the principal cause of the HIV epidemic in the north-east and around 25% of the people who inject drugs and live in this region. Under a joint United Nations programme, UNODC works in the four states of Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya, focusing particularly on establishing HIV-prevention services for women.

The majority of the staff involved in the initiative are women, providing a comfortable environment for female drug users seeking help. The project also addresses more gender-specific requirements such as pre- and post-natal care and parenting support. There is also access to antiretroviral therapy, treatment for sexually transmitted infections and drug treatment services, including opioid substitution therapy. 

Drug use in the north-east is a pressing issue and widening support is a crucial and welcome development

UNAIDS Country Coordinator for India, Dr Charles Gilks

Chawngmawii enrolled at the female drop-in centre in Aizawl, Mizoram, and has been visiting the centre every day since October 2010. "I go and rest, have a bath and eat, something which I could never do in the other centres, as there were too many men. It is a safe haven and I really feel at home." With a female doctor at the centre, Chawngmawii can get regular health checks and free medication.

The most striking outcome of the initiative has been its easy acceptance among women who use drugs. Within six months, the programme has become well established, mirroring the experience with similar UNODC projects in Bangladesh and Nepal. As of June this year, the project has reached 242 women and 606 female partners of male drug users in the four sites.

Dr Charles Gilks, the UNAIDS Country Coordinator for India, says the project is a timely and much needed activity.  "I was really impressed by the innovative work by the team there. The women I met really seemed to respond to being in a setting that deals with their specific concerns and gave them some protected space. Drug use in the north-east is a pressing issue and widening support is a crucial and welcome development.”