A nongovernmental group in Afghanistan is expressing concern over the apparent rise in drug addiction among the country's women and children. The Kabul-based Najat Center says most of the women addicts are former refugees who returned home from Iran and Pakistan to find few prospects or means of support. The rise in drug addiction among children has a different, even more troubling, source: mothers are giving them drops of opium to help them sleep.
Prague, 21 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's Women's Affairs Ministry is facing a new challenge: a growing number of drug addicts among the country's female population. In Afghanistan's deeply conservative society, where woman are largely cloistered from public life, the use of heroin and opium by females is a relatively new phenomenon.
According to the ministry, most female addicts are former refugees who have returned from Iran or Pakistan with an established habit and little hope that life will be better in Afghanistan.
"Nafisa," who asked that her real name not be used, said she began taking heroin while living in Iran. A widow with four children, Nafisa worked as a carpet weaver. She said a friend first offered her heroin powder as a way of helping her with depression. After that, she said, she quickly became addicted.
"I have four children; they would work. I would spend half of their money to buy the powder. I would give the money to my neighbors and they would bring me the powder. Yes, I would find money for it. I would force my children to work or I would sell our possessions. Sometimes I would use the money my children saved for food, and I would buy the powder," Nafisa told RFE/RL.
After returning to Kabul a year ago, Nafisa said she found herself too weak to work. It was then that she found out about the Najat Rehabilitation Center.
Najat, a nongovernmental organization that had been treating drug-addicted Afghan refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan, opened a center in Kabul last year, when Afghans began to return home following the Taliban's ouster. It was the first group to alert the Afghan government to the problem of female drug addiction.
Mohammad Agha Stanakzai, the head of the Najat Center in Kabul, told RFE/RL that drug use among Afghan women has existed for some time. But he said the problem is compounded by the fact that women in Afghanistan usually do not seek treatment for their drug addiction -- either out of fear of social isolation, or simply because they don't know where to turn.
Surveys conducted by the Najat Center show that most of the capital's female drug addicts live in Shurbazar, one of Kabul's oldest and poorest neighborhoods. Female workers from Najat regularly meet with addicted women in Shurbazar and encourage them to seek treatment.
"Our female staff -- doctors, nurses, and social workers -- visit [patients'] homes and explain them the consequences of the drug addiction," Stanakzai said.
During the past 12 months, more than 250 Kabul women registered with the Najat Center looking to get off drugs. They are first sent to a special department of Kabul Hospital that deals with mental illness. Later, they continue their rehabilitation at the Najat Center itself. Stanakzai said complete recovery can take many months, and that patients often need support and counseling even beyond that point.
Nafisa is a registered patient at the center. She has now been off drugs for several months and, she said, "wants to keep it that way."
The rise in drug addiction among Afghan women reflects the country's position as the world's largest producer of opium poppy. Afghanistan accounts for more than three-fourths (76 percent) of the world's illicit opium production, and with drug crops flourishing since the fall of the Taliban, drugs are plentiful and cheap.
Workers at the Najat Center say most patients choose to seek treatment only when they can no longer afford to buy drugs at all. "Mahgul" is one such Najat patient. "I cannot afford [to be an addict] any more, because I don't have money. I don't work. I used to be a dressmaker, but I don't have energy to work. I don't have a husband. That's why I decided to give up opium," she said.
Women are not the only patients being treated at the Najat centers in Kabul and Peshawar. There are also dozens of small children -- some as young as 1 year old. Doctors say some Afghans use raw opium as a traditional remedy for headaches and insomnia, and sometimes give small amounts to their children to help them sleep.
"Shikeba" is a Najat patient in Peshawar. She said she has been taking opium for more than 10 years. Like many other Afghan women refugees, she is a widow and a carpet maker. She said she first began giving opium to her baby to subdue his crying so she could continue working. Eventually, the baby began to show signs of addiction, and was no longer able to fall asleep without the drug. Shikeba brought her son to the Najat Center, where doctors advised her to get treatment for both herself and her son.
Amina Faizzad is deputy head of education and guidance at the Women's Affairs Ministry in Kabul. She told RFE/RL that Afghanistan's conservative society has largely ignored the issue of female drug addiction, preferring to act as though it doesn't exist. But at a recent meeting at the ministry, Faizzad said, representatives from nearly every province acknowledged that women and children in their region were suffering from drug addiction.
"We have to find out the actual number of drug addicts, and find ways to solve the problem. Representatives from provinces came to our seminar with their reports. We have to study all of them and make a conclusion. We will discuss the issue once again in our next meeting in September. We want to get concrete information," Faizzad said.
The ministry is planning to complete its survey across the country by the fall and work out a special project to reduce drug addiction among women. Faizzad said the project will include both medical treatment and social support for the addicts and their families.
(Farah Hiwad from RFE/RL's Afghan Service contributed to this report.)