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Female drug addicts in Volhynia – vulnerable and exposed

In Volhynia, women experience more stigma regarding substance abuse than men.

June 24, 2021 - Iryna Musii - Stories and ideasTackling Prejudice

Lutsk is a Ukrainian city of about 250,000 people. Overall, there are 250 people in the Volhynia region (200 in the city of Lutsk and 50 in other cities), who use substitution maintenance therapy to help with their drug addiction.

Drug addicts face many stereotypes and prejudices in society.

Iryna Omelianova is one of these people. She helps addicts fight for their rights and supports them in various ways. Iryna is not afraid of telling her story about drugs, which began 40 years ago.

She works as a paralegal and is the regional coordinator of the Ukrainian organisation VONA, which helps women who have drug problems.

Volhynia is located in the country’s western border region, where modern drugs first started to appear in the small city of Novovolynsk.

Iryna was born in Lutsk and she started to take drugs in university.

She and her husband have been using drugs, particularly opioids, for 40 years.

She says, “We bought and used ourselves. So we probably do not have HIV, hepatitis or tuberculosis. In 2008, the first therapy programme appeared in Lutsk. We were the first people willing to join the programme”.

Iryna’s family spent two years recovering from the effects of years of drug use. Life without drugs has changed her a lot. She had more free time and she started looking for a job.

Iryna saw a lot of intolerance towards people who use drugs in society. She subsequently decided to fight for the rights of other people who deal with addiction. Iryna has worked for several organisations and helped people access substitution-maintenance therapy.

Iryna has been using substitution maintenance therapy for over 12 years.

Her story can be understood by a lot of people who have experienced similar issues regarding prejudice.

Regional specifics

Nowadays, there are three centres for substitution-maintenance therapy in the Volhynia region. These are located in Lutsk, Kovel and Volodymyr-Volynskyi. As the region is close to the border, street drugs are more prevalent here than in other regions. Drug distribution in the region is centred on the city of Novovolynsk.

Despite this, a substitution-maintenance therapy centre has not yet been opened in the city.

If a person wants to be treated, they have to go to the neighbouring city of Volodymyr-Volynsk. As a result, people may need to travel to another city every day for a dose of methadone or buprenorphine.

Today, Ukrainian legislation demands that patients visit a therapy centre every day for the first three months of their treatment. If the person is getting better and follows all of the doctor’s instructions, they will be allowed to come once a week.

“The centre was not opened in Novovolynsk for a long time because the hospital’s chief doctor was against it. People listened to him there. In the city there are many other narcotics besides opioids. There is both street methadone and subutex (an analogue of methadone), as well as LSD and amphetamine”, says Iryna.

In an interview, the head of the police in Volodymyr-Volyn, Andriy Samusev, claimed that several dozen new drug-related compounds appear on the streets every year.

According to Iryna, the street distribution of subutex may have proven beneficial to someone in the city. As a result, the authorities did not open a substitution therapy centre.

Subutex is used in many countries in substitution therapy. Unfortunately, while there is no centre in Novovolynsk, many people addicted to drugs have to buy subutex.

Abroad, the cost of one tablet of subutex is 60 Ukrainian hryvnia, whilst in Ukraine it is sold for 500-600 hryvnia.

Recently, officials spoke again about the opening of the centre. The head of the VOLNA organisation, which also helps to protect the rights of drug addicts, spoke during one of the meetings. But this will not solve the problem of new drugs used by young people. These are not opioids, but psychotropic substances (amphetamine for example), and there is no protocol regarding treatment for these drugs in Ukraine. There is no substitution therapy either”, says Iryna.

People with drug addiction, especially in small towns, feel unprotected by the police. Police often monitor therapy centres. As a result, they often come across drug addicts, who eventually end up at a police station to be fingerprinted and photographed. Even when Iryna and other experts organise training sessions for the police to protect the rights of this vulnerable group, they have to deal with the fact that many police officers do not treat drug addicts like human beings.

“Unfortunately, the police can force addicts to cooperate with them or blackmail them if they refuse. It is awful for drug addicts to go to the police station. I know this from my own experience. You are very scared and feel insecure, so you are ready to agree to anything. We encourage drug addicts to not be afraid to defend their rights. We can help write a complaint to the police or hospital”, Iryna says.

The organisations VONA and VOLNA work with the human rights ombudsman and the AIDS centre. Many patients feel discrimination from wider society.

For Iryna and her colleagues, changing this situation is one of their most important tasks. Unfortunately, various organisations can often get in the way of their goals.

Iryna has noted that her work has been funded by the UN Global Fund, as well as the state for a second year. Despite this, money is often delayed for a long time. This places a great strain on patients and employees at the centres.

She explains that “They set us a condition that we work for 20 per cent of the necessary pay. Under such conditions, it is difficult to help everyone who needs it. And people with drug addiction suffer as a result of it”.

In addition to treatment, drug addicts must receive psychological help in order to return to a normal life. However, there are very few psychologists who are actively working with drug addicts.

Stigma and self-stigma of women

Of the 250 people in therapy, only 27 are women. This figure is simply not representative because many women are afraid of going on SMT and continue to use street drugs.

“Our women are very scared. Firstly, there is the problem of anonymity within the programme. Drug registration has now been abolished, but this does not mean that your data could not be discovered by someone who could reveal that you are a drug addict”, says Iryna.

She adds that “Ukrainian law also does not protect women. There is an article in the Family Code that says that drug and alcohol addicts can be deprived of parental rights.

There are double standards for drug-addicted men and women. If a man is an addict, it is bad of course, but it is more likely to be tolerated by society. But if a couple use, the man will hide the fact that his wife uses drugs. Still, he will give her drugs and do everything to makes sure that no one knows”.

Iryna communicates with women and supports them. She described the situation of one woman she has helped: “One woman works as a clerk and is afraid of going to a SMT centre because they may find out at work and fire her. The woman constantly has to look for street drugs so that no one finds out that she is a drug addict”.

Iryna also felt societal stigma, especially when she started to work with politicians and the police.

“Stigma is everywhere. You see how medical workers look at us when you talk to them. Maybe I have armour. I have been living openly for a long time and talking about my problem. But when I was just starting to work, for me going to the office and introducing myself to employees was a problem. I think that self-stigma is stronger than stigma”, says Iryna.

Religion has a great influence in the Volhynia region and that is why it is not so easy to carry out educational campaigns. Sometimes the group has cooperated with Protestant churches. For now, however, this work has been stopped. Society does not understand that drug addiction is a disease that needs to be treated. In religious communities, they only want to talk about faith and willpower.

Іryna says that there has been a shift since 2008 because they have organised various meetings with officials and police.

Nowadays, society is changing and becoming more empathetic.

This article is part of the Solidarity Academy 2021 – Tackling prejudice, an international project supported by a grant from the International Visegrad Fund. 

Iryna Musii is a journalist, gender activist and a feminist. She has been a Ukrainian journalist for over 6 years. Iryna wrote articles about gender equality, women’s rights and rights of other groups. She investigated the corruption of politicians who worked in the government and city councils. Iryna has the experience covering many sensitive topics related to war, displaced persons and other groups of people affected by war.

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