Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Kashmiri women resort to drugs under the shields of Burkha.

By: Salman Nizami.

Hamida first smoked opium to dull the nightmares after her husband's violent death. He was shot at his home in front of her at kakapura village in Anantnag district , leaving her a widow at the age of 25 with three young children and a joyless future to look forward to. "I don't know who fired the shot," she said. "But I couldn't stop playing back my memories of him bleeding to death in the yard and nobody to help." In the twilight half-life of an kashmiri widow there was little distraction until a neighbour introduced her to a brown paste. Soon she needed to smoke opium in the morning, at lunchtime and at night. "It gives me comfort and helps me forget my sorrows," she said. "It is a shameful thing. If my brother-in-law found out he would throw me out of his house." India is considered among the world's largest producers of legal opium for medicinal purposes and poppies are grown legally throughout the country, including in Kashmir. Southern Kashmir, an area where illegal poppy fields are common, has seen a high number of Islamic rebels ever since an armed insurgency began in 1989. Until a few days ago, Hamida who like many Kashmiris uses only one name, slipped opium in her tea, twice a day to combat depression. "It was," hamida said, "more important than food.

"According to the J&K Drug De- addiction centre office Srinagar, Kashmir now produces about 30 percent of the Indian opium. The money typically benefits local warlords, and corrupt government officials . The J&K DDA statistics also indicate the amount of opium cultivated here has increased every year since 1989, during the Kashmir Conflict. It's now estimated that 4 million of Kashmiri’s 80,000 people are addicted to narcotics, yet there are only few treatment and rehabilitation facilities throughout the valley. Among those seeking help, "the number of addicted women coming to us requesting help is increasing every day," said Yasir Ahmed , who works with the DDA centre at Srinagar . Though the exact number of female drug users in kashmir is not known, unofficial statistics estimate that the figure is close to 1,000. Yasir Ahmed maintains that many more women were addicted to tranquillizers and hashish, but they were unaccounted for or did not want to be treated for drug addiction. “We have 10-20 women addicts on the streets of Srinagar. Only three of them are from the proper city, while the rest are from southern kashmir,” he says. Yasir discloses that a reasonable number of women displaced due to militancy and the conflict have also started using hashish and opiates due to their difficult circumstances. Additionally, some women from poor families have turned to drugs due to presence of a male addict in the family. But the poor are not the only ones doing drugs. According to him, a few women hailing from well-off families and holding important positions in various organisations were also using tranquillizers, and opiates. The use of hashish and opiates at the girls’ hostels in the University of Kashmir is also on the rise, says yasir. “A number of female students are addicted to these harmful drugs, but the hostel and university administrations deny the fact and don’t allow access to NGOs working for treatment and rehabilitation of drug users,” he said. He reveals that several of the patients are college and university students. “A number of the patients are female students belonging to middle and upper class families. They have fallen prey to smoking hashish and heroin ,” he says. Often the girls come to the centre with their male and female classmates and request privacy. A medical student, on condition of anonymity, confessed that she used to smoke hashish to overcome stress during examinations. “It increased my stamina and concentration during my preparations for the exams,” she argued, trying to justify the use of hashish. According to yasir , this excuse is a myth: “Using hashish or other drugs affects your nerves and you tend to react to things slower than usual,” he explains.

Opium has been widely used as a medicine here. Traditionally, the dry opium was considered an astringent, and was also used as a sedative. Even the husks of the poppy are boiled to make a tea to soothe crying children. Taking opiates is haram, or forbidden, in Islam.

Nayeema is 35 years old. She has been married for 20 years, and she has taken drugs ever since: First bidi and cigarettes, later opium and heroin. She started with smoking and later turned to injecting , until all her veins dried up. “I started smoking a year after my wedding. My sister in law gave it to me,” says Nayeema. “First I refused, but she forced me to smoke opium and cigarettes." Nayeema is from sangham of Awantipura southern Kashmir , where the climate is harsh and many people live in mud homes , including her. Because of the cold and humidity, many are suffering from urinary tract infections, cold and flu. But especially for women it is difficult to get medicines, which is why many suppress illnesses, pain and also their daily hunger with opium. "When I smoked for the first time it made me feel numb,” says nayeema . “I didn't feel my problems any more and was completely calm. When we only had lunch and nothing to eat for dinner, we didn't mind because we smoked and didn't feel the hunger. All our problems were gone." Problems which are manifold especially for women. Like nayeema, many are victims of domestic violence, mainly by their husbands and inlaws. Kashmiri women are particularly at risk. The de-addiction centre knows of around 500 female drug abusers and believes there are far more. Most are too ashamed to seek treatment, hiding their habit from their husbands and families. Nearly all have harrowing stories of loss from the conflict . Most are widows, some are first wives who have suffered the humiliation of their husband taking a second bride. Babies are being born addicted and children working in the carpet trade are allegedly fed opium to numb them through long hours of work; they too become addicts.

While opium and sleeping pills are still the commonest drugs abused here, young women are increasingly turning to heroin. In a centre I visited in srinagar city, a roomful of women in stained burkas were receiving treatment for addiction. One had become hooked on opium after using it to numb her fear so she could sleep during the protest demonstrations in the Kashmir province , another turned to tranquillisers after her husband and son were killed by the security forces. Treatment does not always work. One 60-year-old grandmother picked up a heroin habit from a friend she made in the centre ward where she was seeking treatment for her opium addiction.

Doctors say Nayeema and Hamida aren't the only ones. Tens of thousands of Kashmiri women, who developed psychiatric disorders, fear psychosis, depression, stress and suicidal tendencies during the two-decade-long turmoil have taken to anti-depressants, painkillers and tranquillizers that are easily available over the counter. Most are addicted to drugs ranging from medicinal opiates (opium-based drugs) to cannabis, even heroin and cocaine. Psychiatrist Mushtaq Margoob, author of 'Menace of Drug Abuse in Kashmir', says that 1.5% of the women in Kashmir are addicted to opiates alone – he highest anywhere in the world. "Thousands of them are also addicted to contraband,'' he says, adding that 4% of the women patients he comes across take to drugs simply to overcome depression. "It's a double-edged sword: they become addicts and the depression too lingers on.'' It's part of a pattern, says Dr. Ghulam Nabi Wani, who has run a de-addiction centre in the Valley. "It's generally those who have lost dear ones or seen violent deaths who become insomniac and later, start taking sedatives in order to sleep.'' Margoob says he has also come across women using cocaine, a habit that costs them about Rs 2000-2500 a day. "Women get hooked to drugs, particularly opiates because these are easily available and used to relieve the symptoms,'' he says. In rural areas, elderly women are often seen to induce younger ones to smoke a hookah "to cope with bereavement". "With the easy availability of cannabis, these women often get hooked,'' he says.

The state's health minister, Sham Lal Sharma, says there is realization of the need to "check the menace of psychotropic drugs''. He says his government is formulating a drug policy.Margoob says the poor implementation of licensing laws for the sale of psychotropic drugs compounds the problem. "An assessment of the prescribing practice in anxiety disorder in Kashmir reveals that the majority of such patients could have been helped through counseling and psychotherapy rather than drugs.'' Wani agrees that non-implementation of the Drug Act is aggravating the problem. "If it is implemented, addiction can come down by 50%," he says.

Salman Nizami is a Journalist and has done an indepth research on Kashmir conflict. Contact: salmannizami@gmail.com.