Stigmatization and its Effects on Women Who Use Drugs

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This entry has been published on June 18, 2020 and may be out of date.

Author: Dele Fayemi ‘18, SSDP Nigeria

This article was originally published by DPH News, to view the original article click here.

According to the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which was adopted in 1979, discrimination is defined thus: Any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of the sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, employment or exercise by women, irrespective of their mental status on basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, social, cultural, civil or any other field. Furthermore, it will be very important to know the meaning of stigma as defined by the World Health Organization: Stigma can be defined as a mark of shame, disgrace or disapproval which results in an individual being rejected, discriminated against, and excluded from participating in a number of different areas of society. Stigma is a major cause of discrimination and exclusion, and it attributes to the abuse of human rights.

In a society that is male dominated, there is a gender bias on what is considered normal or abnormal. While it is perceived as normal for the male folks to use drugs, it is usually considered abnormal for the female gender. Societal norms have put the female gender in a position that threatens their rights and health. When a woman uses drugs, a label of shame and social reject is being placed on her. The society stigmatizes and extrudes her from any form of support. Studies have shown that stigma negatively impacts health and contributes to health disparities found among marginalized populations (Chaudoir et al, 2013). Similarly, social stigma towards alcohol and other drug addictions may be an obstacle to resolve problems or to even come up with a strategy to solve the issue of addiction (White, 2002). Meanwhile, it is worthy to note that not all drug users become addicts or misfits.

Stigmatization of women who use drugs has in no small measure led to double standard life of women especially the nursing mothers. Due to the societal norms that women should not possess character traits as drug and alcohol use, they are unable to seek for help. In most cases, their self esteem is greatly affected. Women are just as normal as their male counterparts. Many women use drugs for so many reasons. Some of which include, social pressure, social stress and depression. It is really difficult to find women smoking, drinking or use hard substances in public. They will prefer to do this hidden or in isolation. This is due to the stigma placed on them. On the other hand, the male gender can be easily seen carrying out these activities in public. There is a general stigma on drug users, but the female gender is always the most hit. According to a research by Connera and Rosen (2008), beyond the stigma of being a drug user, women can feel the burden of other stigma like poverty, minority status, unemployment, transgender identification and old age. This makes the stigma on them worse.

 A support don't Punish infographics by WHRIN

A support don’t Punish infographics by WHRIN

In a bid to rendering support to women who use drugs, the burdens mentioned earlier places a barrier to them regaining their normal self. It is obvious that a woman who uses drugs but is unemployed will find it difficult to seek psychological and health support. In her unemployed state, she might even resort to prostitution and drug sales. Furthermore, while it might be easier for the rich female drug user to access these services, it will be extremely difficult for those that are poor and living in the rural settlements. In some African countries like Nigeria, rich parents of drug users pay large sums of money to get their children admitted in rehabilitation centers. For the poor, they resort to religious and borstal homes, which in many cases can be seen as punishment recovery centres. When confined in these homes, the situation always get worse in most cases.

Talking about the human rights of women who use drugs, there have been a lot of cases where these marginalized people are being victimised of their human rights. There have been recorded cases of female drug users that were sexually molested and in some cases raped by law enforcement agency officers. Some of these officers request for sex from these female drug users as a bail out for being caught using drugs. Physical harm by law enforcement agencies has also been recorded in many cases. This is totally inhumane and an infringement on the human rights of these women.

The effect of stigmatization on the health of female drug users can not be overemphasized. Due to their inability to access health, counselling and psychological services, some of these women become addicts. From becoming addicts, most of their health condition begins to deteriorate. At this stage, it becomes very difficult to bring them back to normal.


The female drug user needs support in all forms and not stigma. They need to be listened to and offered help without judgemental insinuations. The situation is now worse especially at this period of the corona virus global pandemic. The society should not see women who use drugs as societal misfits or abnormal people. Just like the male counterparts, they deserve to be heard and supported. A human rights and health approach should be given a priority for women who use drugs.

Authors Contact Information:

Dele Fayemi ‘18, SSDP Nigeria


Mobile number: +2348167890224