The UK Youth Parliament Debate in the House of Commons

ImageVaultHandler.aspxOn Friday the 23rd of November 2012, the UK Youth Parliament held their annual debate at the House of Commons chamber.  307 members of the UK Youth Parliament aged 11-18 debated five crucial issues chosen by a ballot of 250,000 young people before voting for the campaign they wanted to become the Youth Parliament’s main campaign for 2013.

The five topics discussed in the five debates were: ‘Making public transport cheaper, better and accessible for all’, ‘Getting ready for work’, ‘Marriage for all’, ‘An equal national minimum wage for all’ and ‘A curriculum to prepare us for life’. For each debate, there were two speakers representing two opposite positions-for and against-. After each speech, young members of the parliament had either the right to defend, support or argue against each issue.

I was there from early that morning with my fellow journalist from the 99% campaign, Ruth. We were both excited as it was the first time we entered the Houses of Parliament! After having a nice breakfast at the Westminster Hall – choosing from a massive buffet of delicious treats- we made our way to the House of Commons chamber, where the Members of Youth Parliament would debate. After seating at the gallery reserved for the media, we decided that although each of us would report on the whole debate and focus on points we believe are remarkable,  Ruth would focus on the ‘against’ views and I would focus on the positive arguments in each debate.

‘Make public transport cheaper, better and accessible for all’

The debate started promptly at 11 am, with the first topic discussed being the need for a cheaper and more accessible public transport. The first MYP spoke about the urgent need of lower transport prices. He was very bold, strong and articulate and stressed that accessible public transport for young people should be an ‘absolute priority’, as many students in Britain struggle to afford going to school, being very often obliged to pay full adult fees. The main arguments supporting the motion were the need for a general better, affordable pricing structure of the public transport and the improvement of the treatment of young people on public transport, including those in rural areas.

The reason why this debate sparked a lot of controversy was because many people argued that public transport system varies between different regions, making the campaign difficult to attract consensus.  For example, some said that London public transport has a great structure and that young people commute with a free pass and others mentioned the ‘ridiculously high transport prices’ in Birmingham.  Some other members focused on the importance of education and the priority to the needs of disadvantaged, homeless and extremely poor people.

‘Getting ready for work’

The second topic titled ‘Getting Ready for Work’ was mostly about the imperative need for a better preparation, education and skills development enabling young students to enter smoothly the employment market. The young delegate speaking in favour of the motion being the national campaign emphasized the importance of a good career support , the need of  a valuable and essential work experience for all young pupils: ‘we need to provide stable and sustainable apprenticeships for young people’. Work experience for all was at the centre of his speech and he described it as a ‘vibrant opportunity’.

Many young members questioned this need for a short term work experience, stating that what should be at stake is the ‘improvement of the quality of education’, ‘life skills’, and gaining ‘transferable skills at work’.

‘Marriage for All’

The next controversial, lively and to my opinion, very interesting debate was ‘Marriage for All’. I was impressed by the speech of the young girl supporting the issue. She was firm, decisive, energetic and particularly convincing- although she could be characterized slightly aggressive, I certainly liked that tone of aggression and I would rather call that a passionate, vigorous speech. Her name is Michaella Philpot and only at the age of 18, she managed to deliver an amazing speech: she held that equal rights to marriage should be at the heart of the youth concerns, as everyone, regardless of sexual orientation should have the same right to marry the person they love. She highlighted that each person’s sexuality has to be accepted by society and a form of acceptance is the equal right to marriage. She stressed that ‘love is a natural human condition.. there is a moral and social obligation to challenge discrimination against gay people’ and defended an ‘accepting society’.

Quite predictably, there was a big opposition to this argument and a deluge of comments. Highlights included that equal marriage does not affect young people so much – someone said that ‘the 11-15 year olds are excluded if equal marriage becomes the national campaign’-, others held that love and marriage are totally different concepts, others wholeheartedly supported the argument by drawing on the need of sexual inclusion which has been overlooked when compared to other types of inclusion. Despite the different views, this was a particularly prolific debate and one of the closing statements proved it: ‘it was an honest, frank, dignified debate’. I agree.

‘An equal national minimum wage for all’

The next debate, after the big lunch break was about the need for an equal national minimum wage for all. The defenders of an equal national minimum wage for all raised issues of equality and justice, arguing that low pay for young people in comparison with their adult counterparts is a form of discrimination that has to be stopped. The main speaker in favour of the issue urged upon the fact that ‘3,5 million people live in extreme poverty’ and that inequality has to be tackled efficiently.

Many arguments against the issue being the national campaign emphasized that the ‘unequal minimum wage is just a symptom of the general problem’ and some others argued that requiring an equal minimum wage for all could be quite unrealistic and that what should be the main focus is a better curriculum that offers real opportunities.

‘A curriculum to prepare us for life’

The last and certainly one of the most powerful and significant debates was ‘A curriculum to prepare us for life’, stressing the need for a sustainable, realistic, inspiring curriculum that provides young people with political knowledge, cultural awareness, practical skills, relationships and sexual education and enables them to make a smooth transition from school life to work life.

That issue seemed to attract a large consensus: after the two speeches, the members of the Parliament talked about real, current challenges in young people’s lives that need to be met at school, world issues, cultural diversity and life skills. They seemed to hold that the school had to prepare them for life-by not focusing on exam results mostly, but by placing attention to the real problems and to a sustainable preparation of young people for a balanced life and career, producing thereby responsible, educated, informed and open minded citizens.

The winning debate

After the end of the debate, the members of the Youth Parliament voted for the campaign they wanted to be the priority campaign for 2013. As expected, the last issue (‘A curriculum to prepare us for life’) received the majority of the votes (154), making it the priority issue for next year. It was followed by the issue of getting ready for work, which gained a significant 43% of the votes and the rest of the debates. The issues that came last in the voting order were the issue of an equal minimum national wage for all and the issue of making the public transport affordable for young people.

Overall, it was a prolific event, with very knowledgeable, smart, strong, articulate young pupils, who had the courage and the ability to analyse, criticize and offer solutions and proposals for a better education, better opportunities for youth and a fair society. I was impressed by the atmosphere of the debate, which sparked constructive discussion, dialogue, and celebrated equal rights to dialogue -the coordinator gave equal chances to girls and boys, people from different ethnic backgrounds and disabled people to speak- as well as mutual respect. There was a high level of toleration and acceptance of different views.  As John Bercow MP, who chaired the bebate, highlighted, the day, the speeches and the debates were characterized by ‘honesty, compassion, abundance, explosions and dignity’. He also said that ‘Respect is a two-way street’. It definitely is.

*this article, slighlty altered to be a joint article (with the coverage of the ‘against’arguments)  was written for the needs of  the IARS 99% campaign blog. I went to the House of Commons and reported on the event as part of the IARS 99% campaign blog team of journalists and for the needs of the blog. The whole joint article, along with my fellow journalist’s coverage can be read above.


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10 reasons why Christmas can be a healing period for the soul

Christmas-Tree-Wallpaper-christmas-8142630-1024-768I always loved Christmas, to be more accurate, I adored Christmas. I couldn’t wait for the Christmas holidays to come, for the lovely festive atmosphere to outweigh everything else, bringing only joyful and warm sentiments, loving feelings and reunions with my beloved friends and family. Christmas was, no doubt, my favourite period of the year. It was the reason why winter always mattered. When the summer ended, the thought of the coming Christmas kept me going through the autumn blues. While I definitely believe that every season has its magical moments, it would be a lie if I didn’t admit that September and October were always the pre-Christmas months, a sort of ‘warming-up’ for the peak of the season- what else? Christmas.

This year I found myself hesitant at wishing everyone ‘Merry Christmas’, especially after hearing various opinions stating that, since many people are not Christian or are not religious, it would be offensive or ignorant to wish them ‘Merry Christmas’. I even had people saying that it is not politically correct to pronounce the word ‘Christmas’ in front of people coming from different religions or defending different religious beliefs.

I was quite confused and puzzled to that argument, but it kept going a lot in my head and I decided that I should not be afraid of or ashamed at wishing to the people around me ‘Merry Christmas’. The next list is an effort to prove why Christmas could be a universal celebration, even for non-religious people and why it can potentially have only positive and healing affects to the human soul.

1. Christmas, whether you believe or not in the Christian God, is all about love. It is an occasion to spread love, share love, give unconditional love and receive love. And as far as I know, love exists everywhere and touches everyone.

 2. During Christmas period, people usually are eager or are socially ‘forced’ to spend some family time, for most people meaning that they reunite with their family, even travel miles away to see their relatives and dine around the same table. Well, how true is that busy lives and daily routine make it harder and harder for people to stay in contact with their families and have a true connection with them? Could Christmas then be an opportunity for people, regardless of religious orientation, to meet with their close relatives, and spend some quiet, peaceful time with them? Wouldn’t that be a kind of healing for their stressful lives? It would surely be.

3. Christmas is a celebration of life. It symbolizes Jesus’s Birth, but even if one doesn’t believe in Jesus, who can argue with the power of the very concept of Birth, which is the creation of life, the fountain, the starting point? Let us celebrate the joy of life, despite our religious or political differences.

4. Christmas is an opportunity for us to rethink our actions, reflect on our misbehaviour and mistakes and apologize to the people we hurt. Christmas encompasses the meaning of ‘forgiveness’ – so why don’t we try not to judge people so much but try to accept, and forgive instead? Forgiveness relieves the soul.

5. Christmas is a chance to offer gifts to as many people as possible.  Even though there is a materialistic and maybe superficial dimension to gift exchanging, it is still a way to spend time thinking about the other, instead of focusing on ourselves. Especially kids become extremely happy when they receive gifts. I think that everyone is happy when they receive gifts. And they don’t have to be expensive- even the smallest gift is a symbolic action of offering. Offering and receiving gifts makes people smile. We all know that smile is a sign of health and happiness all around the globe.

6. Christmas is the period when we usually think about justice and injustice. It is the period when we tend to think about those people who are lonely, deprived, poor or disadvantaged. It is the period when organisations, individuals, charities, people of authority unite to offer shelter, food and help to those in need. Maybe not everyone cares about helping others, but for those who do, it is a rewarding feeling and a generous act. Christmas period should not be the only period when the priority is the people in need, but nevertheless it doesn’t cease to be the peak of humanity and solidarity. Again, these values exceed religious borders.

7. Christmas is the chance for people to act generously and focus on good deeds. On Christmas and New Year’s Day, people do not want to be involved in fights, arguments and anger. It is the celebration of good feelings, of saying a good word, pronouncing wishes or give a hug. What is more healing for the peace of soul than that?

8. Lights everywhere. In the streets, in the houses, in the public spaces, everywhere. It is psychologically proven that lights help people get out of depression and various health problems. Lights are a crucial part of Christmas celebrations. Literally and symbolically, lights are primordially connected with joy, positivity, happiness, purity and truth.  In fact, they can brighten up someone’s day, especially children’s world.

9. In Christmas, people go out, meet with their friends, go to parties. Even the fanatic workaholics throw work Christmas parties and finally find a chance to chat with their colleagues, to whom they rarely say ‘hi’ on a typical working day. Work Christmas parties are an institution, they might be silly, shallow, might include fake socialising, but they still are an effort of getting together, something quite rare in everyday, typical work routine.

10. During the Christmas period, there is a special atmosphere to it, marked by music, choirs, carol singing, colours, voices, that distinguishes it from every other period of the year. Surely, to many this atmosphere is not appealing, but if you think about it, all those lively manifestations can be a vibrant sign of life.

 So, for the above reasons I firmly believe that Christmas can be an extremely important and blessing period for all of us. I felt an urge to defend Christmas, a very special period of the year, a very special part of me, a celebration that has shaped my life, my experiences, my emotions and who I am today. Thanks to Christmas I sometimes see the world with a different view. Although the reality of life can very often be cruel, disappointing, discouraging and frustrating and the evil dominating in the world succeeds in letting me down and making me wonder where the good is hidden, I never stop hoping for Christmas. And I know that no matter what, I will always want to wake up on a Christmas Day and believe, even for some moments, in the beauty and true meaning of life. Yes, thanks to Christmas.


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The sexualisation and stigma of women drug users

Anxious Beggar TeenagerGender shapes the experience of drug use and its consequences. In a society where policies are mainly designed by men, directed towards men’s needs and where women are often excluded, discriminated against or abused, it is more important than ever to consider female drug use in terms of gender equality.

Although more research is needed, there is enough evidence showing that many existing harm reduction services exclude women and that existing policies have a discriminatory stance which leads to human rights abuses of drug using women. It is now a fact that gender-related factors can enhance women drug users’ vulnerability and victimization and decrease their access to drug treatment and sexual and reproductive services.

Gender inequality has many negative outcomes for women’s drug use. Low socioeconomic and political status, unequal access to education and employment, fear of male violence, intimate partner violence and sexual abuse increase female problematic drug use and add to the biological vulnerability of women and girls being infected with HIV.  The consequences of gender inequalities in terms of low socioeconomic and political status, unequal access to education, and fear of violence, add to the greater biological vulnerability of women and girls being infected with HIV. Violence is catastrophic for a woman’s capacity to have safe sex and safer drug use and a history of trauma encourages risky behaviour and reduces possibilities of female empowerment.

A testimony from a woman who has been an injecting drug user for thirty years in Australia and the UK is indicative: ‘HIV services were almost exclusively male domains throughout the 80’s and 90’s despite the welcoming rhetoric and HIV positive women were forced to create services for themselves because it became clear that services not created by women didn’t cater for women. … We must address this unrealistic view we have of women who use drugs–vulnerable or deviant, or kicked to the curb or needing saving from themselves, the lives they can’t control, or the children they shouldn’t have had. HIV does not happen in isolation. It is strongly linked to violence against women, lack of knowledge and/or harm reduction, poverty, social and economic exclusion.’ ( quote taken The Global Coalition on Women and AIDS paper on women drug users)

There are still many societies where female drug use is considered as a sin or a taboo or a high level crime. The stigma of injection drug use is added to gendered discrimination and is reflected in the treatment of women and the inadequacy of harm reduction services. Women lose self-esteem, get panicked, threatened in many instances by the social rules of conservative societies and resort to catastrophic solutions such as unwanted abortions and higher dependence on substances instead of seeking help and treatment.

Moreover, power imbalances and drug economy hierarchies put women in an inferior position, making them vulnerable and easy targets to arrests, detention and incarceration. According to research findings, women are mostly confined to the lower levels of the drug trade which facilitates their arrest in comparison with the high level traffickers, who are almost always men. The majority of drug using women suffer from poverty and lack of resources, which results in them being without the appropriate legal defence. This power imbalance and general gender inequality in the drug economy, combined with rigid and punitive drug policies that often criminalise drug possession, along with a discriminatory attitude from police officers and health providers, has devastating consequences for the lives of women, who very easily become subject to long, unjust prison sentences and degrading treatment.

Women have specific needs that need to be addressed and met. Women’s specific characteristics, including reproductive health, family bonds, pregnancy and many more have to be taken into account so that they have equal and full access to harm reduction services and treatment. As it is stated in the 2010 UNAIDS chapter on women: ‘ Efforts to promote universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support services require a sharper focus on women and girls. Fewer than half of countries report having a specific budget for HIV-related programmes addressing women and girls’.

All women who use drugs need to have full right to health, full access to HIV and sexual and reproductive health services, the right to denounce violence and to bring their persecutors to justice as well as the right to maternity and reproductive freedom. The UNAIDS 2010 Global Report recommends the following:

•             A gender centred AIDS response including a full budget addressing women’s needs.

•             Given the widespread violence and the clear association between gendered violence and HIV, national HIV responses must include specific interventions to address violence.

•             All countries need to ensure that women have access to integrated quality HIV and sexual and reproductive health services that enable women to fully exercise their rights.

Female drug users have specific needs that have to be met through careful policy design that addresses them. Punitive approaches towards drug injecting women only aggravate their condition and cause worse problems. A gender-sensitive approach to harm reduction programs around the world coupled with a decriminalisation approach to drug policy will certainly improve not only women’s lives but those of the people who live around them.

* this article was published at

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Harm Reduction for female drug users: what is at stake?

Due to a combination of biological, social and cultural reasons, women’s drug use is different from men’s. Research has shown that women drug users, especially those who have been incarcerated, are faced with higher levels of abuse, discrimination and violence than men. Compared to male drug use, female drug use is associated with higher mortality rates, higher dependence rates, higher rates of HIV, risky injection and dangerous sexual behaviour.

Women are a sensitive and vulnerable population, and the way they experience drug use is wholly different than men’s. They are more likely to become dependent more easily after their first drug use, they are more likely to have an IDU sex partner and they are involved in sex work, which has been associated with inconsistent condom use and syringe sharing. Moreover, women risk to experience intimate partner violence (IPV).

Data on women and injecting drug use are limited, as women have been for a long time a hidden population involved in drug use as an illicit activity and due to the fact that data on injecting drug users are not usually disaggregated by gender.

Though precise data on women drug users is rarely available, according to the Open Society Institute data from 2007, women have been estimated to represent about 40 percent of drug users in the United States and some parts of Europe, 20 percent in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Latin America, between 17 and 40 percent in various provinces of China, and 10 percent in some other Asian countries. In some countries, including China, India, and Russia, which comprise 4.6 million of the world’s injecting drug users, drug use among women appears to be on the rise, and in many regions more women are seeking harm reduction services and drug treatment.

The estimated number of women as percentage of all people who inject drugs are: 33% in Canada, 30% in Russian Federation, 27% in South Africa, 26% in Ukraine, 20% in China, 18% in Vietnam, 11% in Indonesia and Kenya, 10% in Cambodia, Malaysia, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia and 9% in Estonia. According to the available statistics, it has been clear that HIV is more prevalent among female IDU’s than among male IDU’S. Studies in 9 EU countries have found that the average HIV prevalence was more than 50% higher among female IDU’s than among male IDU’s.

According to the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS, incarceration affects women disproportionately compared to men; women in prison often experience harms and discrimination; they are more likely to share syringes unsafely, to experience higher rates of HIV and viral hepatitis, to be exposed to sexual violence advanced by the prison guards and to lose custody of their children.

Research has also shown that women drug users have difficulties to access effective harm reduction services. Some reasons can be the relationships dynamics which impede women from seeking treatment as easily as men, imprisonment of drug using women who do not have the chance to enter harm reduction programs and very often are punished for non-violent crimes and the social stigma that follows women’s drug use. The stigma can easily be seen in the lack of availability of opioid substitution treatment and antiretroviral treatment that are only available in men’s prisons. According to EMCDDA, in 2006 women represented 22% of new patients for opioid substitution therapy and 33% of new patients for amphetamine dependence treatment.

Despite the evident specific needs that drug using women have along with the vulnerabilities they experience, many of them still face insurmountable barriers in accessing harm reduction services. The social stigma, coupled with the male dominated policy design directed mainly towards male needs have reduced women’s access to health care and treatment.

Considered as a minority of people who use drugs, women in many instances are not included in harm reduction programs such as HIV treatment, drug treatment services and other medical services. In some cases, anti-retroviral treatment and opioid substitution treatment are only available in men’s prisons and not in women’s. Incarcerated women should have full access to NSP, OST and ARP interventions along with medical care, mental health care and psychological support.

Sexual and reproductive health, as well as pregnancy issues, are not taken seriously into account by current harm reduction programs. While the majority of them include condom distribution, HIV testing and sometimes treatment, female sexual and reproductive health are not addressed by many of them, making it difficult thereby for drug using women to seek parental care, drug treatment or a safe termination of their pregnancy. It is characteristic that the WHO, UNODC and UNAIDS comprehensive package for the prevention, treatment and care of HIV among drug users does not include contraceptive methods such as pregnancy tests, pre-natal and post-natal care. It is crucial for those methods to be added to the comprehensive package so that female injecting drug users are able to have a degree of control over their reproductive health through the prevention of unplanned pregnancies and the control over pregnancy outcomes. Easy access to OST and flexible drug treatment programs should be an immediate necessity.

Many existing harm reduction programs do not respond to women’s specific needs. However, some efforts to introduce gender specific services have been done across the world. Some examples of gender oriented harm reduction provisions to date include women-specific items to basic harm reduction kits such as female condoms, additional material assistance form women at harm reduction sites –such as pregnancy tests, supplies for children, short-term babysitting while women receive medical help-, staff training on gender issues, active participation of women in harm reduction programs design, support groups exclusively consisted of women, links between services for drug users and sex workers, provision of specialists providing counselling on parenting skills, mobile harm reduction, job training, economic empowerment programs, open separate rehabilitation centres for women and many more.

According to the available statistics from the UNAIDS 2010 Global Report, governments in 80% of countries reported that ‘women are included as a specific component of a multisectoral HIV strategy, but the rate of inclusion of women differs by geographical regions’. The report highlighted that the number of countries having a specific budget for HIV activities related to women is significantly low : 46% (79 of the 171) reporting countries. ‘Among countries in sub-Saharan Africa, nearly all strategic plans include interventions benefiting women, and three quarters of countries allocate budget accordingly, indicating a greater awareness of the need for and benefits of women-centred AIDS responses’.

It is crucial for vulnerable and victimized women drug users to be able to have full access to harm reduction services tailored to their own, specific needs. In order for this goal to be achieved, support, education and encouragement of women rather than punitive or judgmental behaviours and approaches towards them are necessary.

The article was published at here.

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An Interview with Fariba Nawa

Fariba Nawa is an award-winning Afghan-American journalist and the author of the book ‘Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords and One Woman’s Journey Through Afghanistan’, a mix of memoir and reportage about the drug trade in Afghanistan. In this interview, she talks about her book, about the drug trafficking in Afghanistan and the impact it has on the the Afghan population and especially on the lives of Afghan women.

Being born in Afghanistan and raised in the US, your identity is defined by two diametrically different cultures: the eastern and the western. How did this double identity shape and change your perception of both cultures?

They are different but not completely. The core values are the same: kindness, tolerance, virtuosity. While I did struggle to define an Afghan-American identity, that struggle made me a stronger person and more able to serve as a bridge for both cultures.

In the Opium Nation, you depict how the opium trade in Afghanistan can both be beneficial for the economies of certain provinces and local people and destructive for some other people at the same time. If you were about to propose a radical reform of the current drug policy in Afghanistan, where would you place drugs and their use in relation to  their huge significance in people’s lives?

I think the current drug policy is on the right track. Eradication is minimal and the focus is on alternative livelihoods for farmers and other victims. The problem is that traffickers are in charge of the border areas and Afghanistan needs a stable government that is not heavily invested in the drug trade, like the current government. As long as there is an ongoing war, drugs will remain the big business. Alternative employment and security must be considered most important as the drug trade is being tackled.

In few words, could you comment on the implications of the opium trade in Afghan Society today and compare it with the production of opium before the Soviet Invasion? In what way did the historical conditions throughout the last 30 years change the drug trade?

Afghan opium cultivation before the Soviet invasion was primarily for Iran’s consumption. Farmers may have planted 100 tons then. In 2007, the highest output of opium came out of Afghanistan — 8000 tons. Afghanistan now supplies 90 to 95 percent of the world’s demand for opium and heroin. Drugs and war go hand in hand, illegal narcotics breed in lawlessness. The 30 years of war made Afghanistan the ideal place for cultivation and trafficking of drugs. Afghanistan had a negligent addict population but now a million Afghans, including women and children, are suffering from drug addiction. Young girls and boys are being bartered into slavery and prostitution to pay off drug debts. Young men die crossing borders as drug mules, either caught in crossfires between rival smugglers or killed or captured by neighboring countries’ law enforcement.

In the ’Opium Nation’ you convey the strong message that the poor and disadvantaged parts of the Afghan society are mostly affected by the drug trade. What does this imply for the Afghan societal structures and how could the international institutions intervene in order to protect the vulnerable people-including women- in Afghanistan?

Intl community including NGOs are already intervening.  More drug treatment centers are needed, a program to help farmers pay off their debts is needed so that they don’t sell off their children, more shelters for girls who are bartered as opium brides are needed. Societal structures, such as the family, are hurting. Fathers are ashamed to sell their daughters to traffickers. Young girls are committing suicide more to escape these forced marriages. Widows are left in charge with no job but their dead husband’s drug debt to still pay off.

Would you say that the expanded drug trafficking in Afghanistan, affecting young women and female children, through the exchange of  young girls for their fathers’ opium debts, is the clear cause of this situation of slavery or simply the symptom of other cultural causes and deeply unequal power relations between the sexes?

I stay away from culture arguments. I believe culture is fluid and changing. That said, certain customs have throughout history subjugated women as property. Girls were traded to settle disputes before but now it’s thousands of more girls and the reason for the increase is that drugs are a big business with high risks. The fact that in Mexico, girls are not regularly traded as wives shows a cultural difference. But then again, they are sold as prostitutes in Mexico.

It is a fact that the War on Drugs clearly targets ethnic minorities and communities of colour in many places across the US. How would you interpret this tendency of the US authorities to humiliate, arrest and mistreat those minorities under the disguise of the War on Drugs?

My research is not US based so I’m not comfortable talking about this issue. Only 10 to 15 percent of Afghan drugs reach US streets.

In case the Taliban participate in peace negotiations and form part  of the Afghan government in the near future, how would this affect the lives of women and the evolution of the opium trafficking?

They will legalize trafficking and processing of opium as they did before — if they are left to work unchecked. I don’t think that will happen though. I think the international community will stay more engaged this time — I hope. If the Taliban are as united as they were before, they can actually have a positive impact by enforcing bans and implementing policies without the high level of corruption existent now.  However, that will happen if they have an alternative source of revenue, which at this point is donor aid. There’s needs to be an economy outside the drug trade and donor aid money. As for women, it will be dismal. They may get security overall but they will suffer individually. Urban women will be imprisoned in their homes again.

In ‘the Opium Nation’ the story of Darya is really shocking. The whole concept of ‘opium brides’ undoubtedly reflects an oppressive and cruel patriarchal society. However, in the book’s prologue, you mention that many girls like Darya, can be really powerful and are not ‘voiceless victims’, despite the fact that they do not claim their individual rights, a term developed and used in the West. Could you expand a bit more on the power that those women can show without ‘borrowing’ any kind of western terms? And finally, in this context of violence and abuse, would you ever defend a certain kind of cross-cultural, universal values?

I just wrote an op-ed on this issue and will send you the link when it is published. I see self-immolation as a form of protest, a refusal to be told what to do. Western values go against this concept and so do Islamic values, but Afghan women do this in desperation and many don’t realize they will die. They do it to protest, thinking they might survive. Only 20 percent who burn themselves do end up living. Women seek refuge in safe houses more now. They are reporting violence more in the last 10 years. They are influenced by the booming media in Afghanistan which is raising awareness about their rights.

The interview was published at here

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A discussion with Eka Iakobishvili from Harm Reduction International

Eka Iakobishvili is a Human Rights Analyst at Harm Reduction International. Her work focuses  on harm reduction and human rights in prisons and places of detention, and related criminal justice issues in European and Central Asian countries.

It was a nice Wednesday morning when I met Eka outside Lambeth North Station. The weather was pleasant and quite shinny and I had an excitement to talk with her and ask her all the things I wanted to. So we picked a quiet and cosy Italian coffee shop and started to know each other. She was very kind, warm and willing to talk about all the issues I wanted to ask her without reservations. We ordered coffees and snacks, and were ready to begin a very interesting discussion.

Doing a face-to-face interview with such an interesting person as Eka Iakobishvili, was something I wanted to do for a while. Especially when the interests of two people coincide what you are left with is a stimulating, informative and passionate discussion. In our case, our common passion was women’s issues.

The main focus of the discussion would be the recently released report of Harm Reduction International concerning the rates of the female incarceration in Europe. The report was also my starting point for discussing many other relevant issues, including gender inequality, drug policy framework and criminal justice.

The alarming increase of female numbers in European prisons

According to the HRI report, the numbers of incarcerated women across Europe are extremely high. The majority of women are found behind bars because of drug related offences. But why? Why are women the target of arrest and detention and what lies behind this massive incarceration? Eka could not give a general answer applying to all countries. As she said, each country encompasses different dynamics and different drug policies. Each country is defined by a different historical and social context, therefore each one should be treated differently. She gave the examples of transit countries, such as Tajikistan, mentioned Ukraine which has an extremely strict drug policy framework and referred to Portugal, for which she explained that many foreign women are involved in drug trafficking.  While the rate of incarcerated women in Portugal seemed rather high in the report findings (47%) Eka stressed that in reality it was decreased from 70% to 47%!

The offences for which women are mostly sentenced in Europe seem to be related to non-violent drug offences, but Eka noted that the thresholds for possession vary from country to country, again according to tradition, age groups, and country-specific context.

The idea of the country-specific context led to my next question which was about the role of women in drug trafficking. To be more precise, I was curious to know about the hierarchy in the role of women in the drug trade. ‘In different constructions, women occupy different roles in the drug trade’, said Eka, as she referred to women from extremely poor backgrounds, who resort to drugs in order to help their families survive. The next bit of her answer got more shocking: ‘In Portugal, there are levels of generations of women in prison: grandmothers, daughters, grandchildren… You see three generations being in prison for the same type of crime’. It is scary, indeed. Other countries such as Georgia incarcerate women only for personal use: ‘[in Georgia} I have cases where women serve sentences for 17 years, just for drug use and I think it is a very serious issue. In Georgia, there are no lower thresholds for personal use for certain drugs such as heroin… It is not only about criminal justice, or drug policies or human rights. I think the issue is much broader.’

Female Incarceration and Gender Inequality

As we were going through the issue there was one word-concept that was spinning around in my head: gender inequality. In my mind I had a strong feeling that there was an inner connection between the massive imprisonment of women for drug offences and the reality of male social and cultural shaping which leads in a certain inequality between the sexes. And Eka somehow confirmed my thoughts: ‘Women go to prison for petty crimes for which men would never go. They get punished much harsher than men in a way that in addition to the sentence they receive they are also often subject to ban of parental rights, taking their kids away, social stigma and discrimination… Women are the most stigmatized individuals’.

In regards to the links between sexual violence and drug use she noted:  ‘we have got links between sexual violence and drug use, we also have strong links between domestic violence and drug use (in which women tend to represent high portions)’. Since women are much more stigmatized than men drug users, for them drug use is often considered as a big taboo-subject.  ‘Everytime something happens, women don’t go to the police…They are afraid of the violence..If they go to the police and report then they’ll go home and be beaten up. If they are drug dependent they would never go to the police’.

Fear is always present for women, because, I would add, they are most of the times under the influence of male drug using partners, male police officers,  male figures of authority. And if you add the punitive and intolerant general approach of the police towards drug users then you have the worst combination: gender inequality and a massive inhumane approach to drug users. In the case of women, as Eka said, there is an additional burden: women are always judged on moralistic and less tolerating grounds than men.

So, how can we enforce equal treatment for men and women drug users? How should equality be conceived in policy terms? Eka had a clear vision of equality which appeared in her answer when I asked her whether current drug policies in Europe tend to overlook vulnerabilities associated with gender: ‘Equality does not mean equal treatment. Equality means responding to different needs of individuals equally.  Every individual deserves treatment as she or he requires. We have specific treatment for women, children and elderly people, because they have specific needs’. So, in a sense equality should be tailored to individuals’ needs and this answer looks more than fair to me.

Drug Policy and Sentencing Reform

The report made obvious the fact that the criminal justice system and the drug policies that many European countries endorse are inefficient and destructive for their citizens and unjustifiably condemn drug users and especially women to unbearable lives in prison. Eka made the point of a ‘huge need for a general criminal justice and drug policy reform. We should, of course, always take into consideration the different dimensions of drug policies in each country and how they affect women’s rights in a specific context’. She explained that possession for personal use has been a major driver for women’s incarceration in many countries: ‘Issues have to be looked in a more comprehensive manner and the first and immediate step should generally be the decriminalisation of use and possession for personal use’.

I tend to be very sceptical towards the idea of having prison as a measure of punishment for drug-related offences. So my next question was related to the necessity, use and function of prison for certain drug offences. Eka made clear that society needs prison for certain purposes and for the punishment of crime, but she also made clear that ‘drug use cannot be a crime, because it is a mental state, it is more of a health issue. You have to detach criminal justice system from health. You cannot expand criminal justice into health. As a government, you have to understand that your criminal justice system should not be expanded into education, social and healthcare system’. I could not agree more.

As for the role of the criminal justice system and its response towards women drug users, she stressed the importance of the individual factor: ‘In criminal justice system, you have the principle of individualization: you investigate individuals in individual circumstances, individual backgrounds, family issues and unique conditions applying to each case. You take into account the law and the individual circumstances. .. That is why we need a specific treatment for women, because in a way it is an individual issue, just as for juveniles and elderly persons. Even the punishment for murder differs from country to country. Sometimes there is a need for certain countries to pass special laws for certain individuals’.
I was wondering whether Eka had in her mind an ideal drug policy framework , so I just asked her and her answer was that there is no ideal framework because, most importantly, ‘every jurisdiction is very different, in every country you encounter different practical issues..’. What she defended was a general ‘decriminalization and human rights framework, a human rights approach’.

To end the interview with an interesting question, I thought about asking her about the connection between the War on Drugs and the massive female incarceration. Was it true that behind the War of Drugs, a strategy that many countries have implemented for years now, there was another motivation and that this strategy mostly affected  particular groups of people? Surely, as Eka highlighted the War on Drugs is placing a higher burden on women in the sense that women get punished more than men due to the fact that they are women. ‘They might ‘pay a higher price’ in some societies simply because they are mothers (and parental rights for mothers are instantly taken away once arrested). In a number of countries war on drugs is called war on women due to its high impact on women –who might happen to be poor and foreign at the same time- and families. .. Gender is totally neglected in the international, male-dominated drug policies. Men often do not understand the issue. Women need to speak out more.’

I think this phrase is ideal for closing this piece: Yes, women need to speak out more. The world, the policies, the circumstances under which we live everyday might be male-dominated, but the way we, as women, handle these circumstances, respond to them, fight for recognition and for our voices to be heard can be female-dominated. The time has come for women to speak out, raise their voices and defeat fear, their worst enemy.

You can read the report here.

The interview was published at here.

Posted in Criminal Justice, Drug and Health Policy, Interviews, The Voice of Women | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The real link between drug use and sex work

In popular consciousness, sex work is often blamed on drug use. One common view is that the drug dealer who approaches a young and innocent girl, makes her addicted to drugs and pushes her into sex work. Another stereotype is that drugs bear the responsibility for making women vulnerable to the sex-work industry. Most people tend to think that one of the strongest reasons why women start sex-working is because they want to fund their drug habits, once they become addicted. No one denies that there are very important links between drug use and sex work, links that make them belong to the same world. Should sex work be blamed on to drugs? Should drugs be blamed on to prostitution? Or should the whole culture that produces both practices be put in question?

According to various research studies, conducted in an international level and based on a detailed selection of quantitative and qualitative data-including interviews of women involved in drugs and sex work- , there seems to be a clear interdependence between sex work and drugs. According to a report on prostitution and drugs in Portland, produced by the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, the interdependence of those two practices is attributed to different factors and it is not at all clear or evident that drugs are usually the cause of prostitution. Drug-using sex workers might have been firstly introduced to drugs before going into sex work but equally might have started using drugs as a consequence of their involvement with sex work.

The governments of different countries, in their effort to improve social policies in regards to sex work, have tried to detect the dominant reason why violence and crime are associated with sex work and have ended end up in tackling the drugs problem by announcing measures in favor of the eradication of the illegal drugs market. Their strategy might be based on the premise, that, if the illegal drug industry can be eradicated, then the illegal sex trade will also start to abate. At the same time, the media often enforce the negative stereotypes about drug use and sex work by implying that most of the sex workers are drug addicts who are desperate about paying for their drugs.

The real relationship and the link between drug addiction and sex work are much more complex than the simplistic causal attribution of sex work to drugs. Drugs and sex work are interconnected in a vicious cycle of violence and corruption and in most instances they affect the most vulnerable parts of society. This link between them does not imply that drugs are responsible for pushing women into sex work. Sex work and drug use can have a merely coincident connection and can both be the symptoms of traumatic experiences in the lives of the women involved.

According to the useful research and results provided by the Home Office Research Study 268 titled ‘Vulnerability and involvement in drug use and sex work’, where 125 young people involved in drugs and sex work were interviewed, a mutual reinforcement of drug use and sex work has been observed and the following ‘trapping factors’ have been found responsible for this reinforcement: the vulnerability of the people involved, manifested in the homelessness of people in their childhood and adolescence, in the exposure of life in the street, in the experience of living in care and insecure housing and in criminal convictions and the outdoor and independent drift sex work sectors. The people who were most likely to enter the sex work trade were the socially excluded. The same results seem to be revealed by another research study conducted by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information, according to which, substance abuse and sex work belong to ‘an endless cycle of victimization’, where the subjects revive the injuries and the wounds experienced in a damaged life, defined by pain and negative reflections.

Another important link between drug use and sex work, against the popular stereotypes, is that drugs are used by sex workers in order to make them cope with the difficulties they encounter in sex work and as a means of escape from the hard requirements of this industry, but also as a means of escape from the despair and the pain caused by the situations which they are faced with every day. In a study conducted in Connecticut, which involved 35 impoverished women, it became clear that the main reason why some of the sex workers used drugs was a need to escape from domestic violence, from the violent behavior of pimps or clients, and a need of relief from the tortures they faced. According to the findings of this survey, for three of the six women who started to use drugs as adults rather than as teenagers, the main factor influencing drug-use initiation was the desire to escape from domestic violence. The survey also stressed the fact that, although the women that were interviewed for the purposes of the study were drug users, there are still many women who are involved in sex work but have no relationship with drugs and that many drug-using women are involved in a number of legal professions or illegal activities other than sex work. Hence, sex work should not be automatically associated with drug use, as this notion sustains and perpetuates negative stereotypes that are way far from any real situations.

It seems clear that the states, the policy area and the various organizations dealing with sex work and drug use should address the issue of the link between them in the broader terms of poverty, exclusion, violence and traumatic experiences of the people involved in both activities. Blaming the existence of sex work on drugs will not in any case explain why both sex workers and drug users usually face similar difficult situations that are mutually reinforcing. On the contrary, tackling the premises and the backgrounds that generate, enforce and perpetuate this strong link between drugs and sex work would shed some light on how this link should be better be handled, so that the people who are trapped in this link have chances to survive, heal their wounds or possibly be prevented from being trapped in situations that might destroy their lives irreparably.

The article was published at here.

Posted in Drug and Health Policy, Opinion piece, Society, The Voice of Women | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment