By Dianova International

Ruth Birgin coordinates the Women and Harm Reduction International Network according to which drug policy presents the single greatest threat to the health and well-being of women who use drugs

Can you introduce yourself and explain the work of the Women and Harm Reduction International Network (WHRIN)?

Ruth: Certainly. My name is Ruth Birgin and I work as WHRIN Coordinator. Women who use drugs along with members of the international harm reduction community recognized the need to establish a mechanism to focus on gender responsive harm reduction services, leading to the development of the Women and Harm Reduction International Network (WHRIN), formed in 2009 and led by women who use drugs. The goal of WHRIN is to improve the availability, quality, relevance and accessibility of health, social and legal services for women who use drugs.

Women who use drugs face specific problems as compared to men… Can you explain what they are?

R: Without a doubt the challenges faced by women who use drugs are overwhelmingly linked with and exacerbated by prohibition rather than the substances themselves. When combined with the social and structural impacts of gender inequality it is little wonder that, for example, rates of HIV prevalence are higher among women who use drugs than their male counterparts. (I list more women-specific challenges in other questions)

Could you explain why and in what ways women who use drugs are stigmatized, and what messages would you like to convey in this regard?

R: Women who use drugs face compounded stigma where gender inequality and punitive drug policy converge to mete out unique punishments and risks. Women who use drugs are doubly demonised for challenging gender stereotypes of women as conventional, demure mothers/daughters/sisters etc., simply by using drugs, with criminalization and media sensationalism and misinformation further exacerbating gendered stigma and discrimination.

This places women who use drugs in a unique situation, restricting access to health services while elevating the risk of violence and BBV transmission. Our key messages include that drug use does not equate with bad parenting, it is part of the human condition and that the world is in dire need of humane drug policy where women who use drugs are no longer criminalised, pathologized or infantilised – but instead enjoy the same human rights as other people.