February Issue 2011
Women of “Substance”: Drug Addiction in Pakistan
Ayesha is 28 years old and is addicted to heroin. She was studying in class nine when she first tasted heroin in her village in Swabi. “My brother used to sell heroin. Once I stole a small amount of white powder and smoked it in a cigarette. Initially it felt very good, but then I would become restless if I didn’t get any. I was simply unable to stop,” recalls Ayesha, as tears roll down her face.
In 2001, when she was in her second year at college, her drug-addicted brother died of an overdose of heroin. It brought to an end the free supply of heroin that Ayesha used to obtain from her brother. So she decided to abandon home and head for Peshawar. It was the beginning of a life of hardship and misery. For the next eight years she roamed the streets of Peshawar looking for drugs, and lost the urge to live.
Ayesha is only one among the growing number of female drug addicts in Pakistan. There are no official statistics on the number of Pakistanis taking drugs, let alone a breakdown according to gender. However, unofficial statistics compiled by NGOs suggest that the total number of addicts is above five million. More than half the addicts, or an estimated three million, belong to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the adjacent Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) — mainly due to their proximity to Afghanistan, which according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), produces about 94% of the world’s opium.
Keeping in view the conservative lifestyle in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas, it is generally understood that most of the drug addicts are male. Yet a rising number of females are also getting hooked to all kinds of illegal substances.
Though the exact number of female drug users in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas is not known, unofficial statistics estimate that the figure is close to 5,000. In 2010, more than 200 females addicted to hard drugs like heroin and opiates were treated by outreach teams of the Peshawar-based Dost Welfare Foundation, an NGO treating and rehabilitating drug addicts.
Muhammad Ayub, project director of the Foundation, says that while the number of female drug addicts is rising rapidly, proper rehabilitation centres are virtually non-existent. “At the moment we only provide home-based treatment to female drug addicts. However, we are in the process of setting up a new facility to provide children and women with residential and community-based treatment.” The Dost Welfare Foundation would then become the only organisation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to provide proper treatment to female drug addicts.
Shaista Naz, the administrator of an NGO Behtar Kal for female drug addicts, maintains that many more women were addicted to tranquillizers and hashish, but they were unaccounted for or did not want to be treated for drug addiction. “We have 25-30 women addicts on the streets of Peshawar. Only three of them are from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, while the rest are from Punjab,” she says. Naz discloses that a reasonable number of women displaced due to militancy and the floods have also started using hashish and opiates due to their difficult circumstances. Additionally, some women from poor families have turned to drugs due to presence of a male addict in the family. But the poor are not the only ones doing drugs.
According to Naz, a few women hailing from well-off families and holding important positions in various organisations were also using tranquillizers, alcohol and opiates. The use of hashish and opiates at the girls’ hostels in the University of Peshawar is also on the rise, says Naz. “A number of female students are addicted to these harmful drugs, but the hostel and university administrations deny the fact and don’t allow access to NGOs working for treatment and rehabilitation of drug users,” she tells Newsline.
Dr Mukhtiar Zaman Afridi, a known pulmonologist at Peshawar’s Khyber Teaching Hospital, reveals that several of his patients are college and university students. “A number of my patients are female students belonging to middle and upper class families. They have fallen prey to smoking hashish and heroin and drinking alcohol,” he says. Often the girls come to Dr Afridi with their male and female classmates and request privacy. A medical student, on condition of anonymity, confessed that she used to smoke hashish to overcome stress during examinations. “It increased my stamina and concentration during my preparations for the exams,” she argued, trying to justify the use of hashish. According to Dr Afridi, this excuse is a myth: “Using hashish or other drugs affects your nerves and you tend to react to things slower than usual,” he explains.
Incidentally, Ayesha’s sister Hina, a university graduate, met a fate worse than her sibling’s. Twenty-five year old Hina went in search of her sister and finally located her in Peshawar and requested her to return to their village in Swabi. But destiny had something else in store for the two sisters. Hina too fell prey to the smoke coming from Ayesha’s heroin-filled cigarette. She asked to take a puff, then another and another, and eventually decided to stay back with Ayesha, instead of taking her home. The sisters began living under bridges, on the streets and in parks, searching for food in the garbage dumps.
As the two Pashto-speaking sisters were reasonably beautiful and had no proper shelter, they were always at risk from sex-hungry drug addicts and other adult males. In June 2010, Hina was shot dead by an infuriated drug addict who demanded sex and was refused. Ayesha lost her beloved sister and a partner. Since then she has been living in hiding but her craving for drugs remains. The story of the two sisters is public knowledge but it has failed to deter other young women who are hopelessly addicted and undergoing similar travails in life with no recourse to rehabilitation.
Arshad Yusufzai has worked for Voice of America and has published in The News International and Central Asia Online.