Afghan women and the opiate trade


Afghan women and the opiate trade

30 November 2022
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)

A research study on Afghan Women and the Opiate Trade was launched by the Afghan Opiate Trade Project (AOTP) at CRIMJUST, Border Management Branch, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The report provides a unique insight into the role of Afghan women in the opiate trade in Afghanistan.

For nearly two decades, Afghanistan has been the major source of the world’s illicit opium production. Opiates produced in Afghanistan impact governance and economic development and continue to fuel insurgency, terrorism, corruption and poor health, within Afghanistan, the southwest Asia region and further afield. The trafficking of illicit opiates contributes to the destabilization of Afghanistan and countries along the main trafficking routes. While there has been considerable research on opiate production in Afghanistan, there are few detailed studies on how opiate manufacture or trafficking occurs in Afghanistan, and no dedicated study on women’s involvement in these areas. In 2020, UNODC produced a study based on interviews with active male Afghan drug traffickers – Quchaqbar in Dari/Farsi – who were directly involved in the trafficking of opiates in Afghanistan and abroad. All of those interviewed in the 2020 study were men. Accessing women traffickers – or Quchaqbar zan in Dari- in the cultural environment of Afghanistan was challenging, and the initial assumption was that women had little role to play in the opiate trade, beyond cultivating and harvesting opium and anecdotal evidence of female drug mules. However, in the 2020 study, many male traffickers commented that Afghan women’s involvement in the opiate trade had increased in the five years from 2015 to 2020, and that women performed many roles in the business.

To better understand the role of Afghan women in opiate trade in Afghanistan the UNODC’s Afghan Opiate Trade Project, under the framework of CRIMJUST initiated the current study, based on the data gathered from nine interviews with Afghan female traffickers. The study investigates Afghan women's role and involvement in the drug trade, motivations for entering and remaining in the drug trade, the business model and drug trafficking networks.

"Mapping criminal networks is essential to understanding the illicit opiate trade, both within Afghanistan and internationally” – emphasized Alan Cole, the Chief of the Border Management Branch at the launch of the research study in Vienna.

According to the research study, Afghan women are involved in a wide range of roles within the illicit opiate trade, including trafficking outside Afghanistan and selling heroin to users. Having entered the drug trade for a combination of social and economic motives, the women remained involved mostly for financial reasons. They directly managed the income earned from the opiate trade and used it primarily on family expenses and savings. Often working within family-based drug trafficking organisations, the women remained at the periphery of the wider organization due to social restrictions and cultural norms. Some women had left the opiate trade following the return to power by the Taliban – conversely, some women reported that trafficking had become easier.
"Opiates are cultivated in areas where there is less gender equality", stated Ms. Alison Davidian, Country Representative for UN Women in Afghanistan. She stressed that the broader cultural context must be taken into consideration when designing policies targeting women in Afghanistan.

This is the first study to understand opiate trafficking from the perspective of Afghan women. Their testimonies provide novel insight into an otherwise hidden population. Not only does this report contribute to wider research on the topic of women’s involvement in drug trafficking, it also provides an evidence base upon which targeted interventions to help women leave the opiate trade can be developed.