Diversity in Unity – #WeAreHERE
“Meaningful involvement should be a norm not a sugar-coated tokenism”
Where the world is uniting for the empowerment of young girls and women, there is one group in particular that is left out – women who use drugs (WUD). Sadly it is true that we are not recognized, heeded and meaningfully involved even in the broader women’s movement.
In June 2018, I received an invitation from the Asian Network of People who Use Drugs (ANPUD) to attend the first ever regional consultation of women who use drugs – “Mapping Strategic Advocacy Priorities for Women who use drugs in Asia”. Being in this movement for more than a decade as an activist to voice out for the existence of WUD in Nepal, having to live with the frustration of being left out and barely appreciated and having to experience gender inequalities and sterotype in every breath, I eagerly accepted ANPUD’s invitation.
When I saw a roomful of women activists, many of them new, from 7 other countries, I found a strong sense of belonging and a proud moment of being one of them. To me it was also an emotional moment where we all shared how we have been used, abused and misused by people as a result of laws and policies that do not protect but discriminate us. That powerful sentiment that we shared through our lived experiences of being a woman, a drug user, a sex worker, a partner, a mother and a person living with various health conditions was something I had never expected to find myself in, at least not in near future.
Unlike the context where we struggle as women who use drugs – with our issues been unseen and voices gone unheard – the room echoed with the words like gender equality, women’s rights and meaningful involvment.
Where are we? What have we done? And what can we do? were the set of questions that were coming into our minds. The introduction of “Theory of change” model of planning was new, and so was the excellent workshop session to develop framework and map-out advocacy priorities. It was infuriating to learn that there are programs and services designed for women who use drugs in some countries however, they were extremely inadequate and failed to address the diverse needs of women who use drugs. It was clear that women’s roles as beneficiaries, service providers and as activists have always been undermined.
Another interesting thing for me was the process of developing goals, strategies and outcomes with indicators. That did not just limit to the group work during the consultation but also reflected the work that we have been doing in our countries, within our organizations and networks. Even though English was not the first language for many of us, everything worked-out perfect. We did not need words to understand that we all had the same concerns and issues when it came to our meaningful involvment in planning, decision making and implementing programs and services that mattered to our lives.
The consultation was extensive in that most of us discussed about how stigma and discrimination, bad drug laws and policies and the sterotype approaches have made women more vulnerable to abuse, violence and to having less knowledge and skills for speaking up against the system of enduring suffering in many countries in the region. Being in such sensitive discussion, for every one of us, was one of the step towards crafting our common goal to advocate for our right to live, to access health and social services and to learn and exercise human rights.
Very limited opportunity or I would prefer to say not having meaningful involvement of women who use drugs at all levels of decision-making processes has resulted in limited access to information and limited capacity among women. Unfortunately, this has become a never ending vicious cycle in which lack of capacity and timely access to information are used to justify limited opportunity for women who use drugs and not having that opportunity again leads to lack of capacity and information.
Environmental factors like legal, economic, social and cultural play a huge impeding role that contribute to the dire situaion for WUD. These factors need to be addressed within the programs designed for WUD. Gender perspective to all aspects of the HIV response is what we need in order to be responsive to the issues of women who use drugs. Most importantly, these programs need to be designed and implemented through an inclusive process – led by and for women who use drugs in the countries in Asia.
I was personally moved by the stories of everyone about how they are fighting to make a difference, how they are taking care of their families – as a mother and as a role model for their peers. Women from 8 countries convening for the first time (for some it was first international event) to share, to motivate, to inspire, to be the strength of one another was the beauty of this consultation.
We, women who use drugs in that room made a decision to never let ourselves be vulnerable and be treated as invisibles. #WeAreHere is our movement and a call to our friends who use drugs to join us. It is an outcry to make ourselves visible and heeded.
My sincere thanks to ANPUD for bringing us together. I am grateful to UNAIDS for the support. I will miss the wonderful facilitators who respected our stories and made us feel special and all the strong comrades who stood by each other.