Baljit Kaur (32) (name changed), a housewife and single mother from Patti, is a scared mother. Her 13-year-old son, who she calls her ‘treasure’, lives with her relatives while she is in rehabilitation and she is scared that ‘chitta’ might swallow her son’s life just as it has done to her own.
“I do not want my son to commit the same mistake I did. I can’t face him anymore,” she shares, while looking towards her mother. A drug addict for the past seven years, Baljit is among many women in Punjab who have largely remained ignored, as the war against drugs wages on.
“I was under depression after my divorce. My female cousin, studying law in Chandigarh, introduced me to drugs, claiming that they will calm me down. I started taking 0.25 gm twice a day and gradually increased my dosage.” The gravity of her addiction, she explains, was that she used to lock herself up in her room for hours after injecting, completely oblivious to her son’s existence. “I have been into treatment twice, but the wake-up call came when my son started asking questions I had no answers to,” she says. She has been in the Swami Vivekanand Centre for Drug Rehabilitation for the past week now. Her 60-year-old mother stays with her.
The deep seated social stigma and lack of data is preventing the women users from getting treatment.
Ritu, 27 (name changed), another drug addict, is currently getting treatment in a private rehabilitation centre. She says that she has many friends, all girls, who are into drugs. “I got introduced to prescription drugs by my friend, who works at a beauty salon. We later graduated to other substance abuse. My family was not aware until I was caught by my mother, stealing money for drugs.” Her mother, a housewife, says that her treatment is being done under complete discretion
The lack of data for female drugs users in the state makes it difficult to gauge the intensity of problem. The government-run Swami Vivekanand De-addiction Centre has received only 111 female addicts in the last three years and the Outpatient Opiod Assisted treatment (OOAT) clinic set up inside the Guru Nanak Dev hospital hardly gets any female patient.
“Female addicts are brought as a last resort by families, when they run out money for the addiction or other solutions. Even then, most prefer outdoor treatment through medications and not rehabilitation, which should ideally be the way,” says Dr PD Garg, head of psychiatry department at Guru Nanak Dev Medical College, and in charge, Swami Vivekanand De-addition Centre.
According to a study conducted by the AIIMS and the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre in 2019, published as Magnitude of Substance Use in India-2019, Punjab has the second highest number of people who inject drugs (88,000 out of estimated 8.5 lakhs). “Even if you assume that out of such big numbers, 1% of users are women, the actual number of them getting treatment and rehabilitation is very dismal. And it is deeply worrying,” says Dr Garg.
Despite the troubling fact, Punjab has only one de-addiction centre for women in Kapurthala. It opened last year and till date has been receiving patients for rehabilitation as well.
Dr JPS Bhatia, neuro-psychiatrist and de-addiction expert, says that since beginning the fight against drug abuse in the state has been focused on male patients. “The identification of women addicts is important as it will open the door for treatment,” he adds.