Claims by the media, paired with the scarce data available, suggest that in recent years, the participation of women in the international drug industry has increased significantly.  Nevertheless, while this participation is visible in the news, it has been largely absent from the research and other activities of most governmental and inter-governmental bodies in the Americas.

In general, we know relatively little about the people that participate in the drug industry – be they men or women.  As usually happens in other areas, however, we understand even less about women’s participation in this world and we tend to interpret it through suppositions and stereotypes that, on the one hand, complicate an adequate understanding of the social, economic and cultural factors that determine this participation and, on the other hand, produce negative effects for women in terms of assigning them stigmatized roles.[1]

Preliminary research conducted by the Inter-American Commission of Women (CIM) of the OAS indicates that in many countries, the majority of women denied liberty are fulfilling sentences related to the drug industry: Argentina: 68.2%,[2] Colombia: 44% in 2009,[3] Costa Rica: 70 %,[4] Dominican Republic: 359 women (2004–2006) charged with drug trafficking,[5] Ecuador: 80% in El Inca (the country’s largest women’s prison),[6] Mexico: 48 % (compared to 15% of men),[7] and Peru: 66.38% (2006).[8]

A report prepared by the Transnational Institute and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) profiles women participating in the drug industry as young, poor, illiterate or with little schooling, single mothers, and their children’s principle caretaker.  In most cases, these women do not have a prominent role in drug trafficking networks and are concentrated at the lower and least secure levels.

The violence that is exercised against women as a result of the commercialization of illegal substances has numerous manifestations, from the coercion applied by partners or family members in relation to drug trafficking to the violence committed by agents of the State in detention and investigation processes.

The incorporation of differentiating criteria in the analysis of the situation of women and men in the drug industry is the starting point for strengthened institutional responses and public policies that aim to address and prevent this social problem.  Of particular importance in this sense is understanding why, and how, from a perspective of human rights and development, women get involved in the world of drugs and what interventions – in terms of both development and treatment – are necessary to ensure that they have safe and feasible alternatives.

Based on the limited data available, and by considering some qualitative content from specific case studies, this Round Table aims to address the understudied phenomenon of the role of women in the drug industry. The discussion will include representatives from governmental and international bodies, academia and civil society in a multi-disciplinary dialogue on the nature and extent of women’s participation in the cultivation, production, distribution and utilization of drugs in the Americas.

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