How harsh drug laws undermine health and human rights in Asia Pacific



How harsh drug laws undermine health and human rights in Asia Pacific

29 March 2023

Rosma Karlina and Bambang Yulistyo Dwi live with their two young children in the rainy hillside town of Bogor, south of Jakarta. If their family life is traditional, their work life is anything but. Ms Karlina is the founder and Director of Suar Perempuan Lingkar Napza Nusantara (also called Womxn's Voice), an advocacy and care organisation serving women and transwomen who use drugs. Bambang, popularly known as Tedjo, founded the Indonesian Justice Action Foundation (AKSI). Since 2018 his team has provided legal aid and support to people who use drugs, and advocated for their rights.

The organisations successfully advocated for a man to be released from a compulsory rehabilitation centre so that he could access HIV treatment. Otherwise, he would have gone three months without his medicines. The organisations have witnessed many examples of women living with HIV being faced with extreme scorn. A police officer once threw a pack of sanitary napkins into a woman’s cell instead of passing it to her, saying it was because he was afraid to be near her.

“Healthcare providers and law enforcement agencies treat them with violence and abuse,” he said. “So they don’t want to come out the closet and say ‘I have shared needles and syringes and I need an HIV test’. Because drug users are not welcome in our health facilities that leads to them going into the shadows and staying there.”

Twenty-one countries in the region operate either state-run compulsory detention and rehabilitation facilities for people who use drugs or similar facilities. These are a form of confinement where those accused of, or known to be using drugs, are involuntarily admitted for detoxification and “treatment”, often without due process. Conditions have been reported to involve forced labour, lack of adequate nutrition, and limited access to healthcare.

Ms Karlina called for increased investments in mental health care, poverty alleviation and education. “We need proper assessments to better look at each situation and come up with an effective solution. Prison is not the answer. If you see us as humans, you will take care of us as humans,” she insisted.