Drug Policies and Women's Rights on UN Agenda

At the 56th Session of the UN Committee on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) this week in Geneva, the UN gender experts from around the world gather to examine the state performance on the rights of women including discussing strengthening the rule of law and access to justice in achieving universal human rights including those for women. Even more, it is expected that the Committee members will follow up on the day of general discussion on access to justice for women held earlier this year to formulate general comments on access to justice for women from most disadvantaged communities including women affected by drug policies -- a group that is still missing from discussion topics.

As the CEDAW sessions are on, civil society groups will engage with members of the committee to brief them on policies and practice in the region of Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA) relating to women's access to justice while focusing on the countries in the region that practice repressive drug policies criminalizing thousands of women for poverty crimes including use of drugs and possession of drugs for personal use, depriving them from basic healthcare and access to fair trial standards and exposing them to further violence, stigma and discrimination. This is a first time of its kind when the CEDAW Committee will meet the UN Secretary-General Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS for Eastern Europe and Central Asia and the woman drug user activist from Russian Federation to discuss the impact of drug policies on the rights of women in the region.

EECA remains a region with most restrictive justice and drugs policies incarcerating nearly 120 000 women and girls in prisons on any given day. Over 31,000 of them are imprisoned for drug offenses, representing 28 percent of all women in prisons in these regions. And when it comes to women who use drugs, repressive and stigmatizing drug policies, in particular those underpinned by a "zero tolerance" policy towards drug use and drug users, are the main causes for this violence.

While these numbers are not skyrocketing, one should not forget that behind the statistics are individual women with complex backgrounds and often with multiple causes for their involvement with drugs. The UN Women -- the new major UN agency working on the women's rights and their economic social empowerment -- noted in 2011 that 'most offences for which women are imprisoned are 'crimes of poverty' and are nonviolent, property or drug-related.'

Women are disproportionately facing prison for non-violent drug offenses, often as a result of poverty and social marginalization. An over-reliance on criminal laws to address social and economic problems in many countries globally led to stigmatization and often discrimination of women that are more likely to face prisons for their 'drug involvement than their male counterparts.

Even more, the joint research by UNODC and WHO shows that many women convicted of drug offenses have histories of sexual and physical abuse; coexisting psychiatric disorders; alcohol or drug dependency; positive HIV or Hepatitis C status; low self-esteem; and low literacy. These women are unskilled and often (single) mothers with a lack of familial support. They may also be financially dependent on a male partner involved in the drug trade.

The recently adopted UN document on 'Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (Bangkok Rules)' further standardizes the treatment rules for women in prisons including those with drug use problems and suggests utilization of available alternative measures to incarceration at domestic levels.

Comprehensive policy reforms are needed to meet the needs of women in criminal justice systems as well as diverting them from unnecessary imprisonment. For this to be successful human rights based approach needs to be developed and applied to the individual domestic jurisdictions with the consideration of its national policies and compliance with the international obligations in each individual case.

Women's rights needs to be further promoted and litigated through all means while in society or in the criminal justice systems. In this regard, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women needs to be further utilized and applied in the domestic terms.