Help impossible to ignore

Marija Sketre, EHRA Senior Program Officer and Ganna Dovbakh, EHRA Executive Director

Our dreams

On International Women’s Day, we asked partners to share their ideas of support that should be offered to a woman using drugs experiencing violence. We share their dreams of safety, support, solidarity and protection of rights:

“Addressing violence towards women using drugs should be low threshold, integrative shelter, meeting women where they are – client-centered and client-oriented – offering variety of services to answer multiple client needs from health care response to psychosocial and legal support.”  Irena Molnar, ReGeneration, Serbia

“Shelters should provide safe space for ALL women, regardless of their status. Women using drugs are particularly vulnerable to violence, thus shelters should be non-discriminatory places, where acceptance prevails, and health services are provided. It also relates to achieving the Istanbul Convention goals, which we all strive for!” Tatjana Stoimenovska, HOPS (Healthy Options Project Skopje), North Macedonia

“I want shelters in every city to be a safe space filled with care and warmth, with friendly atmosphere and sisterhood approach! In this shelter a woman can receive all the necessary services and live from one day to 6 months. Solving her basic needs, a woman has the opportunity to take vocational courses, find a job, take her children from the orphanage, gain confidence and stability in the future!” Elena Bilokon, My home, Kazakhstan

We are worried

Unfortunately, the reality is very disappointing, and we are very far from such dream. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), every third woman experiences intimate partner violence. Women using drugs, according to some studies, experience gender-based violence three to five times more often than women in the general population.

The problems of women using drugs experiencing violence in our region primarily include:

  • stigmatized attitudes of the family, social services and the whole society towards the problem of female dependence on drugs, including self-stigma;
  • difficulties with personal safety: a woman’s vulnerability to the police in connection with drug use, difficulties with accommodation in existing shelters, the risk of minor children removal;
  • difficulties in accessing psychosocial care due to discrimination on the part of social services providers, health centers and other organizations that could and should provide assistance.

Often a harm reduction organization, social worker or outreach worker is the only support available to a woman. Even so, the support in harm reduction programs and opioid substitution therapy centers for women experiencing gender-based violence, police and intimate partner violence is limited. Not all organizations have street lawyers, psychologists, psychiatrists, programs do not always guarantee personal safety and confidentiality of data, there are no safe rooms where only women can come or there is no time allocated for women only, there are no childcare services, there are no services for women, sex workers, homeless or transgender women who have experienced violence.

Emergencies such as natural disasters, situations of armed conflict, economic crises and pandemic situations – as the recent COVID-19 pandemic – significantly increase the likelihood of gender-based violence and reduce the quality of life and accessibility of support to women using drugs. Violence is on the rise in quarantine, and access to help from harm reduction programs and from support systems for women experiencing violence is decreasing.

We are in solidarity

Realizing the particular vulnerability of women using drugs in a pandemic, in 2020 EHRA gathered fellow experts on providing assistance related to gender-based violence. Together we share the experience of successful integrated services, together we develop principles and practical approaches for organizing such support. We are convinced that support to women using drugs experiencing violence should be organized taking into account the following principles:

  • Woman’s safety, meeting her specific needs, and the well-being of her children and herself are the main goals of services for women using drugs experiencing violence.
  • A woman – regardless of her drug use experience – should receive adequate support and protection in case of domestic or gender-based violence.
  • Support to a woman using drugs experiencing violence includes a range of services from ensuring the safety of a woman to medical, legal assistance and resocialization.
  • Building partnerships between state and non-governmental services, including harm reduction organizations and services for those who experienced violence, ensures the support is comprehensive, high-quality, gender-sensitive and focused on a woman using drugs, her safety and special needs.
  • Three key steps in combating gender-based violence against women using drugs: 1 – Preventing gender-based violence; 2- Organization of protection and support for women; 3 – Advocacy of changes in legislation and/or practice of its application.

Our partners from 5 countries of the EECA region are building and piloting a system of support to women, which is coordinated with harm reduction programs. They provide daily counseling, referral to shelters and ensure safety, so necessary for women experiencing violence.

We believe that dreams come true

The story of a woman using drugs who experienced violence from Ukraine proves that our dream can come true. Here it is, listen:

“God, what a terrible word, “shelter”… However, I was so surprised when at 2 am they answered my call and offered to urgently come to them. There were no requirements for referral papers, health certificates, or statements to the police. A taxi was called for me and an hour later I was in a place that became close to me.

I needed help and I got it. The first thing they asked me was whether I wanted tea or coffee, or maybe I was hungry… ”. The story was provided by the EHRA partner organization “Convictus-Ukraine”.

We want every woman to get a chance not only to hide from violence for a short time, but also to find her calling and place in life, to gain independence, same as happened with the heroine of this story. Such words are all we need to get inspiration and continue work on improving access to shelters and psychosocial services for women using drugs experiencing violence. Our slogan:

Help, impossible to ignore!

More information about the project Access to comprehensive care for women using drugs in case of violence: https://harmreductioneurasia.org/projects/c19rm/.