AMRITSAR: Punjab’s well-documented drug abuse problem is a half-told story. It’s been about the men. But the distaff side of the state’s ugly truth, the spread of the problem to women, has not been focused upon quite as much. With de-addiction centres around the state reporting increasing incidence of drug abuse by women, it’s slowly revealing its contours. And as with other problems affecting women, it’s layered over with stigma and denial.
“I have seen that a family will come forward if its men folk are addicts. But if it’s a woman, the same family might stay in denial,” says Dr Jagdeep Pal Bhatia, one of the top psychiatrists in Punjab.
An experienced rehab professional for 25 years, Dr Bhatia was fully convinced that drug addiction among Punjab’s women was on the rise and needed separate attention. So in May this year he started the state’s first exclusive rehab centre for women in Amritsar.
Arrivals at the Hermitage De-addiction Home for Women in just the first few months have confirmed Dr Bhatia’s conviction. Punjab’s toxic epidemic, once considered men-only, has now well and truly gripped its women and the trend is increasing each passing day. “I have been running a de-addiction centre for men for more than two decades. The number of women drug addicts is rising more alarmingly when compared to men. Though everyone knew that women are also into drugs, the increasing incidence of hardcore drug addiction in women is very, very disturbing,’’ says Dr Bhatia.
All the dimensions of the problem seen in the men are reflected in the women -- and then some. They come from all sections of society: rich and poor, educated and uneducated, first generation drug abusers as well as second, liberal as well as conservative family backgrounds, etc. Then they fall into the classical drug abuse age demographic, the most productive 18-40 age group.
Most disturbingly to Dr Bhatia, many of them are multiple drug users. At hermitage, he spoke to me about one of his current patients, a 26-year-old woman, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, also a former drug user, from Hoshiarpur. She checked in seven months pregnant. She had been hooked for a long time, graduating to a deadly combo of heroin, alcohol and Tramadol tablets (which works in the brain to change how the body feels and responds to pain) to which she had added opium as well in the last two years. Her family brought her in only when they realized that her behavior might endanger the baby.
“She was abusing multiple drugs. She gets violent when she feels the pull and goes on to punch her stomach. At that point of time, she is not in a position to understand that she is killing her own baby. Her family got her admitted here as they were determined not to lose the baby. She will be here till she delivers the child,’’ Namrata, a senior counselor, explains to me.
In many cases, drug abuse is detected in women only when they are admitted due to various health complications. In some cases, they have to be confronted with medical reports indicating drug abuse to get them to admit to doing drugs.
At least three to four women come to Hermitage daily. Most of them are traumatized by domestic violence, physical and sexual abuse, incest, low self-esteem or depression. There are instances of boyfriends getting them hooked, sexually abusing them and abandoning them. Such women turn to prostitution to feed the habit.
Take the case of Dimple (name changed). She fell in love with a boy thinking it to be love at first sight. As they grew closer, her boyfriend introduced her to alcohol, weed and finally heroin, which is easily available everywhere in Punjab. “She got used to the combination and continued that way for nearly three years before showing up at the hospital for other health issues,’’ says Namrata.
Though there is no figure for the exact number of women drug addicts in Punjab, doctors say it would easily run into several thousands. But officials say Punjab’s discovery of the women dimension to the drug abuse problem would serve as a lesson to other states.
“Drug addiction among women is a serious matter but it is not limited to Punjab,” an official in the Punjab health department told me, requesting anonymity. “There are other states where drug addiction is rampant among women. But somehow people only point a finger at Punjab.’’
The problem lies undetected, the official said, because of women’s need for privacy to confess to drug addiction and have it treated. Punjab, for instance, has 31 government de-addiction centres but not many women approach them as they do not afford privacy.
One 22-year-old heroin addict told me, “I have been to a government clinic but there is no privacy there. Moreover, the men there used to stare at me. One has to wait for hours to meet the doctor and after all that I stopped going.’’
The need for privacy is probably one of the reasons why the contours of the problem in women lay in the shadow of the phenomenon among Punjab’s men for so long. As Dr P D Garg, head of the department (HoD) of the Psychiatry Department at Guru Nanak Dev Hospital in Amritsar says, “Though women do come forward for treatment, they prefer private centres as there is no privacy in the state-run centres. Their identities are protected and the facilities are better in private rehab centres.”
Privacy apart, the Punjab government too – partly with elections looming next year -- has begun to get sensitized to the problem. Referral centres have been opened in all districts of the state. And now, whenever a woman addict turns up at the Swami Vivekananda drug de-addiction centre run by the Guru Nanak Dev Hospital, they are gently persuaded to bring in her cohort as well.