The call came close to midnight. Like always, I was ending my day watching a sitcom and snacking on baguette and cheese – as one would in Paris. It was A, my Syrian classmate at the university. Earlier that day, she had notified me that her parents travelled, and she was going to use the opportunity to get high in celebration. This call was a follow-up to the previous conversation. “I’m so high!” I remember her saying, excitedly, “I’m free!” The call was followed by a series of photos and videos of her doing the most mundane things in the most zestful manner. I laughed it off, replying appropriately in trying to not come across as judgemental. As her friend, I knew that A had been going through a lot both at school and at home; in addition to struggling academically, she was also an only daughter to immigrant doctors from a country that was tearing apart. For her, marijuana was an escape.
As the years went by, I realized that A was not an exception; she was textbook. I know many women who – in an attempt to run away from their realities – have resorted to doing one form of substance or another. Their reality is so overwhelming that they start to believe that the best – no, the only – getaway is drugs. This reality can be anything from the pressure of being an only daughter to the struggle to fill the big shoes of being raised by such an academically overachieved couple while struggling in school. Contrary to widely spread speculations, a significant number of African women have come to heavily rely on drugs as a solution to problems like financial dependency, child labour, lack of access to healthcare and education, misogyny and/or being victims of forced marriages. The prevalence of child marriages also leaves women in places where this is widespread vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases and vesicovaginal fistula (VVF). The sexual, mental and emotional abuse faced by many women is often the cause of substance abuse.
According to research by the United Nations (UN), drug abuse is also strongly related to unwanted pregnancies poor birth outcomes, and child abuse or neglect. So even when drug abuse is higher among men, the medical and social consequences of drug use for women are much more significant. This might include difficulty in quitting and being more likely to restart after quitting. With injected drugs, there is a higher prevalence of HIV among women than among men. In Senegal, 21.1 per cent of women who inject drugs are infected with HIV, while it is only 7.5 per cent among men who do; In Tanzania, there is an HIV prevalence of 45 per cent among men who inject drugs but a staggering 72 per cent among women who do. This is despite the higher stigma on women battling substance abuse than their male counterparts. For many women, it’s a mark of colossal shame to their families and as a result, most aren’t provided with the healthcare they need to become less reliant on drugs. In the slim chance that they do get help, the same UN report states that there is a lack of gender-sensitive treatment facilities, which may lead to a deficit in women’s access to treatment.
For many women like A, drugs are an escape from their realities. But instead of understanding the social, economic and/or financial influence(s) of their substance abuse, our societies are quick to pass judgements and deny their access to healthcare. A more sympathetic approach will be to send them to facilities where the caretakers are concerned, professional and most importantly, empathetic. What is often ignored is the fact that as much or little as these women need, what they need more urgently is empathy. My friend, A, would have never resorted to drugs if she had had it easy – if she was dealing with less pressure and if she felt more understood. The road to equality of access – even in healthcare – is paved with empathy; the world is in dire need of this.