Women Push For Gender-Targeted Harm Reduction, Drug Treatment Programs

By Lindsey Weedston 06/14/19

A handful of harm reduction organizations are beginning to take steps to design programs with women’s unique needs in mind.

women's group pushing for gender-targeted treatment programs

Women around the world are being failed by harm reduction and drug addiction treatment programs designed for men, according to a recent article by Tessie Castillo for the Pacific Standard.

In order to address this problem, organizations such as Women and Harm Reduction International Network and Harm Reduction International are taking steps to design programs with women’s unique needs in mind and ensuring that women are well-represented in leadership. 

In spite of the fact that women who use drugs are just as likely to develop an addiction disorder as men who use, drug policy in many countries has only left women facing additional hurdles to treatment and a massive amount of stigma.

Women have unique challenges such as pregnancy and the threat of being seen as a “bad mom,” higher rates of becoming victims of domestic abuse, and an expectation of performing sex work in relationships where both partners use drugs. Bree Cassell, a young woman who has struggled with heroin addiction and who was interviewed for the report, says that women assume “he can't sell his body, I have to sell mine.”

Sex work exposes these women to a significant additional risk of violence, but when their work is criminalized, they cannot safely report it to authorities.

If pregnancy occurs when a woman is addicted to drugs, there is an expectation that drug use stops immediately. This is not only unrealistic, it is extremely dangerous to the embryo or fetus. It’s safer to keep using opioids, especially if the switch can be made to methadone or another opioid addiction treatment drug. However, the fear of having their children taken away can keep these women away from treatment programs altogether.

There are also more addiction treatment programs for men only than for women only, and coed programs can be uncomfortable for women who have experienced abuse, which is more likely among women with addiction disorders.

In order to try and combat these problems, harm reduction organizations are trying to build programs designed for women from the ground up. Not only do they offer women-only days for their needle exchange programs and offer to bring these services to women’s homes rather than making the patients travel to them, their leadership is structured with women in mind.

“Men are welcome to participate in Reframe the Blame planning and events, but the campaign is designed from a feminist model in which leadership and decision-making is shared among participants, rather than controlled by a single head,” Tessie Castillo writes. “The model recognizes that women may benefit from different leadership models than those currently operating at most businesses and non-profits.”

These are essential steps to take as gender gaps in addiction and overdose deaths continue to close and women who inject drugs suffer higher rates of HIV.

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Lindsey Weedston is a Seattle area writer focused on mental health and addiction, politics, human rights, and various social issues. Her work has appeared in The Establishment, Ravishly, ThinkProgress, Little Things, Yes! Magazine, and others. You can find her daily writings at NotSorryFeminism.com. Twitter: https://twitter.com/LindseyWeedston