Punitive drug policies have disproportionate impacts on populations facing systemic marginalisation due to their ethnicity, gender, sexuality, migration status, and their socioeconomic conditions. Women typically bear the brunt of such dynamics.
By Dania Putri and Ernestien Jensema
Myanmar is among the top ten countries with the highest numbers of women and girls in penal institutions, alongside Brazil, China, Indonesia, Russia, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam. In 2020, the global number of women and girls in prisons was estimated at 740,000, a 17 per cent increase since 2010. Of the female prison population in Argentina, Brazil, and Costa Rica, 60 per cent are incarcerated for drug-related offences, mainly low-level offences committed by women from disadvantaged economic backgrounds. Globally, 35 per cent of incarcerated women are in prisons for drug-related offences, compared to 19 per cent of men.
Human rights violations in prisons are rampant, amidst worsening problems of overcrowding and the lack or absence of gender-sensitive healthcare. The devastating impact of punitive drug policies hits women’s health and lives even harder when they are poor, when they engage in informal and criminalised sectors such as sex work, and/or when they live with HIV, hepatitis, tuberculosis, and other communicable diseases.
Moreover, stigma related to drug use and other illegal activities tends to marginalise women even further, while cases of gender-based violence – by partners, police, or others – frequently target women who use drugs. Women using drugs are thus facing a double stigma – discrimination and even violence is intensified by the prevailing patriarchal systems.
Being a woman
A series of discussions conducted between 2018 and 2021 with women who use drugs, women who grow opium, as well as women engaging in sex work and/or involved in the drugs market has helped us draw the gendered dynamics of Myanmar’s drug policy. These women work to survive across age groups (between 19 and 72 years at the time of interviews) and ethnic backgrounds, living in different areas in Shan State, Kachin State and Mon State.
As one woman working at a women-focused harm-reduction drop-in centre put it, ‘being a woman itself is something’. It is quite something too to be a woman who uses drugs and/or involved in the drugs market and other heavily stigmatised and criminalised sectors like sex work. With regard to drugs and related policies, women and their experiences are often rendered invisible, or presented merely as an afterthought – even though women often face harsher effects of punitive policies.
There is a need to emphasises for a rights-based approach for these specific populations of women – women using drugs, women dealing drugs or couriering (sometimes to support personal use), and women engaging in the drugs market through opium cultivation.
Despite their lack of visibility, women can also play a wide variety of active roles in the drugs market, and more importantly within their families and communities. Even when women are not directly engaged in the drugs market, they experience the direct impacts of the failed drugs policies and punitive laws, when their male family members – sons, husbands, nephews, brothers – are facing prison sentences for drugs-related offences and they have to support the family alone. But women are not only on the receiving end of repressive policies and practices. There is clearly a need to situate (drug) policy discussions within a broader look at women’s roles in leadership and decision-making processes, not simply spelling out the impacts of drug policy and drug markets on women in Myanmar.
Finally, social reproduction at the household level encompasses an array of unremunerated activities and dynamics that are essential to people’s survival and collective well-being. The importance of women in relation to social reproduction activities and process can never be underestimated. It can range from (but is not limited to) bringing up children to spiritual gatherings, gathering fire wood, fetching water, making and washing clothes, foraging for edible herbs and plants, and preparing and cooking food.
The issue of social reproduction is relevant here because it relates to the vital yet undervalued reproductive labour that falls almost exclusively to women and girls, often in combination with waged and/or ‘productive’ work. Sometimes these overlap, for example when opium is grown for both the market and for household needs. Using this lens, we emphasise the diverse, essential, and life-affirming roles that women play, which extend well beyond the ‘domestic’ tasks often associated with them.
This opinion piece is based on a report by Ernestien Jensema and Dania Putri for the Transnational Institute. The full report is available here
Image: TNI – A woman working in the opium field in Pekhon Township, Southern Shan State