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Her husband introduced her to drugs to distract her from her depression. Soon she felt she needed drugs every day in order not to feel cold and sick. Six months ago, Gulya started taking methadone to kick her year drug habit. The drug, administered clinically at a government-run health center, silences her cravings to inject heroin, making it possible for her to care for her two children. I drink it, and can attend to what I need to do. When it comes to populations affected by drugs in Central Asia, women drug users have long sat at the bottom of the priority list.
Despite the attention and funding given to the topic of drugs in the region, much of the focus is on big-picture issues such as the eradication of heroin production and trafficking. Those programs that do exist to help drug users themselves, such as needle exchange or drug treatment, are predominantly used by men.
Given the traditions of a male-dominated, conservative society, women are a hidden population, often by choice. In regions where even smoking tobacco can be taboo for women, there is a fierce incentive to hide drug use. This stigma makes it especially difficult for them to access clean needles or drug treatment, particularly when combined with women's greater family responsibilities and household demands. Given the low profile of women drug users, it can be hard to design programs that meet their needs.
Umar Shadiev, the Head Doctor of the Osh Narcological Dispensary, admitted that little is known about this population. Women use drugs for different reasons, and according to different rules, than men. Often they start using with a sexual partner who leads the way. Irena Ermolayeva, Director of the Kyrgyz NGO Asteria, which helps connect women drug users to health and social services, explained that husbands or boyfriends can sometimes coerce their partners to use drugs. EurasiaNet operates under the auspices of the Open Society Institute.
Katya Burns, a consultant who has researched women drug users, said that social customs increase women's risk of contracting HIV. Sharing needles with a sexual partner is considered a symbol of trust, she explained, as is having sex without a condom.