Lest we forget, women too hooked to hard drugs use

Thursday, January 2nd, 2020 08:41 |

It is early morning and Halima Swaleh (not her real name), 34, a mother of two, is seated on a concrete block, pensively staring at the entrance of Kisauni dispensary, waiting for the methadone dispensing window to be opened.

She is among the about 38 Female Injecting Drug Users (Fidu) in Mombasa placed under the government’s Medically Assisted Therapy (Mat) for drug addicts. 

Swaleh says she has been hooked to heroin for 12 years despite being on Mat for two years now. 

Drug abuse has made her appear older, as her skinny body bears blackheads and gaunt and wrinkled eyes.

Through the use of injecting needles, she contracted HIV six years ago and is on ARVs.

After years of injecting drugs through the veins in her hands, legs and neck, she could no longer trace the veins. Desperate to quench her craving for drugs, four years ago, she resorted to injecting the hypodermic needle in her private parts. 

“My veins disappeared completely, I could not trace my veins any more. My hands and legs are full of scars, some of these are healed wounds which resulted from miss out injections on the flesh. I cannot stay without drugs and the only remaining part was my vagina,” she says.

Apart from Mat, Swaleh has also been put under the Needle Syringe Exchange Programme. She gets a needle and syringe in exchange of a used one to avoid sharing among injecting drug users (IDUs). This is meant to stop spread of infectious diseases. 

Risky injections

Reachout Centre Trust director Taib Abdulrahman says there are between 3000-5000 IDU  in Mombasa of which 600 are female.

“Of this figure, some have contracted HIV/Aids while others have contracted Hepatitis B. These are the people that we give a needle and syringe at designated points every day to stop spread of the diseases,” he said.

According to the National Aids Control Council (Nacc), HIV infection among injecting drug users is a significant driver of the HIV epidemic in Mombasa and Nairobi. Nacc annual reports show that condom use and safe injecting practice are very low among the drug injecting population (estimated at 29.8% and 51.6% respectively). 

Abdulrahman says out of the 600 Fidu, the number of those put under the needle and methadone programmmes is very low. At the Kisauni dispensary 135 females against 865 males are on methadone.

He says several undocumented cases of deaths as a result of risky injections have been reported across the Coast region.

“If one has been injecting for long, veins collapse and therefore they resort to injecting any other part that can get the drugs in fast, men will inject through their penis while women will do it on their vagina,” he said.

Affect treatment

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that close to 10 million risky injections are practised in Kenya annually. The Health ministry states that while the 2008/09 Modes of Transmission Study attributed 3.6 per cent of all new HIV infections in Kenya to injecting drug use, the contribution to new infections in the Coast region is substantially higher at 17 per cent. 

According to the National Authority for the Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (Nacada), there are about 17,000 drug abusers in Coast region and a baseline survey conducted in 2017, shows that 2.3 per cent of them use heroin, 0.9 per cent are on cocaine while 0.4 per cent abuse hashish. 

The national prevalence for hashish stands at 0.6 per cent, heroin at 0.7 per cent while cocaine is at 0.7 per cent of the population according to the authority. Heroin, cocaine and chang’aa have been strongly associated with the burden of negative health.

While about 3 per cent of residents in the Coast region are dependent on heroin and another 1.2 per cent on cocaine, Mombasa county is leading in use of heroin with 12.1 percent and cocaine at 3.5 per cent while Lamu county is leading in the use of hashish at 1.1 per cent among the six counties.

“We have evolved alternate strategies to identify women with drug abuse problems; we know there are many others out there who have not come out because of stigma, discrimination and fear of being viewed as outcasts by their families,” said Abdulrahman.

A research published by Havard Medical School found out that “gender may affect susceptibility, recovery and risk of relapse among drug users. Women tend to progress more quickly from using an addictive substance to dependence...  and often find it harder to quit using addictive substances, and are more susceptible to relapse. These gender differences can affect treatment”. 

Nacada Coast region manager George Karisa says that the rise in number of female drug users is a threat to the future of the family. He said easy availability of hard drugs, peer influence, unemployment, and poor parenting are contributors to the rise in use of narcotics by women in the resort town. 

In 2014, a UN task force on Transnational Organised Crime and Drug Trafficking as Threats to Security and Stability found out that women’s participation in the drug trade is on the rise worldwide. The report found out that female drug abusers especially from poor backgrounds are often forced to have sexual relations for money to sustain their newly-acquired lifestyle.

Further, the number of women imprisoned for drug-related offenses is on the rise while substance abuse is one of the main causes of gender-based violence.

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