The issue of police violence against women who use drugs is a widespread phenomenon in the countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In most cases, however, police violence remains under-reported and hidden from the society.
We started to work on the issue of police violence a bit more than three years ago, upon request from women who used drugs. It all started from a small interview-based study and then led to a three-year regional campaign where women activists registered cases of police violence and placed them on an Internet platform. The turning point for us was when a woman drug user from Ukraine who was one of the first cases we registered died after she got routinely beaten by police. She died not because of trauma but because of AIDS, as she could not get access to HIV treatment due to police abuse. We tried to push for investigation, but without any results. We felt that we needed to do something urgently, at least to draw attention to such facts in order to prevent them in future.
Our first step was to develop a definition of what police violence was, because most of women drug users were sure that police had a right to coerce them to cooperate, threaten and intimidate them, blackmail, beat up or force them to sexual relations. We developed a definition of violence through an inclusive consultative process where women drug users played a leading role. Then we reached out to women who used drugs in 16 cities to educate them on what violence was, offer to anonymously document their cases and help them get access to health care or social assistance.
We started a training program for women drug users called “street lawyers” and a small grant program for women initiatives so that they could join the campaign. In a year we registered 850 cases of police violence in 16 cities in 7 countries. This included hundreds of physical sexual violence cases, none of which have been formally reported.
We had a lot of discussions whether these cases were gender-based violence or they were a result of repressive drug policies. I think it’s both. Women are more vulnerable to violence, and to police violence in particular. It also takes them longer to recover from police violence. Police violence often ruins their self-esteem and their will to survive. And it is repressive drug policy that makes police violence so widespread. Violence against women who use drugs is a side effect of zero-tolerance policy, when every person who used drugs finds herself totally unprotected from abuse conducted in the name of drug-free society.
I think it is a shame that we do not have any acknowledgement of the police violence in the UNGASS document, which has been adopted in the morning today. When I was first presented the results of the campaign a year and half ago I got quite a lot of critics coming from lawyers and human rights defenders that such anonymous reporting would not help as we would be able to start a legal case. They said that prosecutors and police themselves would not take us seriously if we come to them with anonymous stories written down by community activists.
But we were taken seriously. The campaign was not driven by revenge. We never said that we were going to start cases against police. Our message was that we wanted to have police on our side and join our forces to end police violence. Women activists who were part of the campaign managed to build working relations with police officers in their cities. In the 8th of March they gave certificates of gratitude to 46 friendly police officers who helped to protect women drug users from violence.
We plan to continue and enhance the cooperation between police and drug users community and jointly advocate for non-repressive, human rights and health-based drug policies.
We believe that even though the UNGASS outcome document does not contain strong language of decriminalization, harm reduction and human rights protection, Eastern Europe and Central Asia have a chance to start improving their drug policies and protect their citizens from violence in the name of drug-free world.