Breaking Barriers and Building Bridges: Navigating justice for womxn who use drugs in Southeast Asia

By June 25, 2024 Regional

Punitive drug policies have gender-specific impacts on womxn. This paper traces the roots of the barriers faced by womxn who use drugs to the international drug control system and subsequent national drug policies. It outlines international standards on public health and human rights that provide guidance on the reforms governments must urgently pursue. To elaborate on the needed reforms, the paper also presents country-specific recommendations from civil society organizations to governments in Southeast Asia.

Recommendations from civil society in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Philippines, and Thailand. 

Indonesia 

Yayasan Suar Perempuan Lingkar Napza Nusantara (SPINN) is a community-led organisation that supports the operation of Womxn’s Voice, a network of intersectional womxn who use drugs, by organising leadership, capacity-building (e.g. on provision of paralegal assistance, research and advocacy), livelihood and campaign activities. Amongst their priorities is the goal to prevent and address the risks of violence faced by womxn, and they subsequently established a shelter for womxn alongside provision of legal, social and health services.36

Based on consultations carried out with Womxn’s Voice, they submit the following recommendations to government authorities in Indonesia with responsibility for determining drug policies in the country:

  • Take serious action to address and prevent gender-based violence against womxn who use drugs, and adopt a gender- sensitive approach to drug policies and regulations. Ensure that drug policies and regulations are grounded in evidence and uphold human rights standards, as outlined in the UN Human Rights Council Resolution 52/24 on drug policy adopted in 2023.37 This entails incorporating gender perspectives across all dimensions of drug policy, conducting comprehensive collection and analysis of evidence-based data to inform policy formulation, and safeguarding womxn who use drugs against any infringement of human rights, including discrimination on the basis of having a criminal conviction, where women can automatically lose custody of their children.
  • Remove criminal and other penalties for drug use and possession for personal use from national policies, and develop guidelines for the technical implementation of the legal reforms at the regional level in Indonesia.
  • Alongside decriminalisation of drug use and possession for personal use, redirect the emphasis of Indonesia’s drug policies from punishing people who use drugs towards a public health approach, and focus government resources on the provision of evidence-based, gender-sensitive and voluntary treatment, rehabilitation, and social reintegration services.
National consultation joined by 54 women who use drugs from 30 cities of Indinesia to formulate gender-sentitive drug policy recommendations
16 days of activism Elimination of violence agaist womxn who use drugs (EVAWUD) campaign

Philippines 

IDUCare is a community-led organisation based in Cebu City that provides health, social care, and legal assistance services for men and women who use drugs.38 They collaborate closely with government authorities and other stakeholders to meet the wide-ranging needs of people deprived of liberty (in jails and prisons) and in the community, and where the opportunity arises, provides advice on drug- related policies and their implementation.

In 2023, IDUCare carried out nationwide consultations amongst people who use drugs in three key cities in the Philippines: Metro Manila, Davao and Cebu City. Filipinos who use drugs were able to tell stories about their personal circumstances and experiences of police violence and surveillance, inadequate access to health and social services due to discrimination and gender inequalities, and living in constant fear. They put forward the following three key recommendations for the consideration of the Philippines government:

  • Revise the Philippines’ drug law, Republic Act No. 9165, to prevent its misuse by police and other government officers as a tool for the harassment of people who use drugs, such as excessive and arbitrary surveillance, extortion, sexual violence and extrajudicial killing. Specifically, the penalties for drug offences need to be re-evaluated to align with international principles of proportionality, along with measures to ensure fair access to bail and legal assistance.
  • Take actions to ensure gender equality, non-discrimination, and respect for the human rights of people who use drugs in the provision of drug treatment and other health and social services for womxn who use drugs. Specifically, establish mechanisms for the expungement of records related to drug offences, including once individuals complete mandated drug rehabilitation programs or demonstrate rehabilitation. Ensure that individuals who have undergone rehabilitation are treated fairly and without prejudice in applications for employment and other essential processes such as travel visas, education and bank loans.
  • Adopt measures to uphold and protect spaces for civil society and community organisations to organise and care for the diverse needs of intersectional communities of people who use drugs, including women, LGBTQ+, and other minorities, and to provide inputs into governmental processes that determine drug policies in the Philippines.
Meeting with Barangay leaders where they signed the Covenant for the protection of marginalised communities
Paralegal training for persons deprived of liberty

Thailand 

The Health Opportunity Network (HON) is a civil society organisation based in Pattaya that works with intersectional communities of women who use drugs, including transgender women, sex workers and women who are homeless, to provide health and social services.39 In 2023, following years of consultation and collaboration with wide- ranging stakeholders, they helped to establish the network of womxn who use drugs, known as ‘We-Trust.’ HON is especially concerned with the dire situation faced by women who use drugs and become homeless. In the case of two women named Ho and Wow, who do sex work and have come in and out of prison as a result of their drug use, they are homeless because of the discrimination they faced after receivingcriminalconvictionsandarecordasa person who use drugs. However, given serious problems with mental and physical health, they are in desperate need and HON was eventually able to assist by helping to resolve their access to state services.

HON regularly conducts consultations with intersectional communities of womxn who use drugs around the country and following a national consultation in January 2024 to specifically discuss key concerns and suggested actions to raise with representatives of the Kingdom of Thailand, they submit the following priority recommendations for the consideration of the government:40

Take actions to realise and uphold the sexual and reproductive health rights of womxn who use drugs, both in prisons and in the community, including antenatal care for those who are pregnant, and provide gender-sensitive health and social services throughout the country. 

Specifically, the government should support and fund community-driven initiatives, such as the provision by womxn who use drugs of vital services to their peers including sexual and reproductive health, harm reduction, and other gender-specific services. To complement these efforts, provide capacity building programmes among government officers to deliver gender- sensitive health, social and legal services.

  • Make and deliver plans to end discrimination and violence against women, including trans people by adopting a national anti-discrimination law that ensures equal access to education, employment, health services, and legal assistance, and prevents discrimination against people with criminal convictions for drug offences. Womxn who use drugs must have a say in shaping the policies that affect them, and the government should include them in processes that determine drug laws and other relevant policies.
  • Remove criminal and other penalties, and compulsory orders into drug rehabilitation programmes, for people who use drugs and possess drugs for personal use. Decriminalisation of the use of drugs has been widely recommended by UN agencies and already implemented in over 25 jurisdictions around the world. It is the root of the devastating discrimination, stigma and human rights abuses faced by womxn who use drugs. Revising Thailand’s drug policy to end criminalisation and to champion harm reduction and human rights will be an important step towards achieving the original goals of the international drug control conventions to further the ‘health and welfare’ of all.
Capacity building training on drugs and harm reduction for transwomen who use drugs
Empowerment workshop re-write your story

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