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Drug Trafficking Disproportionately Affects Women Worldwide

Drug Trafficking Disproportionately Affects Women Worldwide

Incarcerated Women in Central America. Source: www.coha.org

Incarcerated Women in Central America. Source: www.coha.org

Maya Lakshman

Drug trafficking has been a part of our society since the nineteenth century. As security measures worldwide have increased, the intricacies of the illegal drug trade have deepened. This has inevitably resulted in the popularity of drug trafficking as a source of income for both men and women, and thus the prominence of gang violence and sexual violence. Although drug trafficking targets both men and women, several countries around the world have disproportionately high rates of femicide and female incarceration. Cases have been recorded in Thailand, Latin America, India, and across Europe. Through a variety of causal factors, the drug trade harms women in particular.

Drug trafficking, defined as a global illicit trade involving the sale of drugs, is generally regarded as a crime that takes place in particularly patriarchal societies, and becomes a way for men to exert their power over women. Women began to participate in drug smuggling in larger numbers because authorities are less likely to associate them with smuggling. Women are often eager to become part of the industry due to poverty, lack of family support, and illiteracy, to name a few. To single and poor mothers, the drug business often appears to be a better alternative than inability to provide for their families.  While some women are able to effectively navigate drug trafficking organizations and rise to the top of the social ladder, many are taken advantage of and end up as “mules” with the risks not explained.  Women are usually seen as good targets for traffickers due to their “emotional vulnerability.” Traffickers prey on relationship and power dynamics to manipulate the girls into becoming drug mules. The women often get are murdered, sexually violated, and imprisoned.

South African women face dangers from drug trafficking. There are currently over 3,000 South African citizens incarcerated in various other countries for drug trafficking-related crimes, the majority of whom are women. Often, young girls are lured in to drug trafficking by older women. There are currently several South African women imprisoned in Thailand. In the case of a young girl named Pendu, she was enamored by the idea of a life she could lead out of South Africa, and was recruited to be a drug mule in Bangkok. Just like many other girls who become part of drug trafficking rings, Pendu “couldn’t speak the language, and [she] had no friends. [She] had no choice.” If a girl was non-compliant, she was considered a liability to the traffickers and she would either be killed or transported with drugs to a new country with no possible escape (due to language barriers). South African society has shockingly high levels of violence against women (17,000 homicides and 62,000 sexual assaults in one year). It is not too much of a surprise that so many women are targeted in the illegal drug trade as scapegoats.

The rate of female incarceration has increased dramatically in Latin America in recent years. In Argentina, the rate of incarceration of women increased by 271 percent, while the rate for men only went up 112 percent. Over 60 percent of the incarcerated women are there for drug-related offenses. In Chile, over 68 percent of the women are in jail based on drug charges, and in Brazil, over 90 percent. The number of women jailed in Mexico for organized crime activity has experienced a 400 percent increase since 2007, resulting in an overflow of women in prisons. A young Mexican girl named Mariana became a crack addict because her father’s abuse led her to escape to the streets, and eventually turn to drugs for survival. Women have become increasingly active in the Latin American drug trade in recent years.

Each woman’s story is different in its own right, but the stories all share a common theme. The illegal drug trade victimizes women disproportionately. Incarcerating these women not only destroys their lives, but also the lives of their families. Many women have children they must provide for, and are thus attracted to the drug trade as a source of income. In some countries in Central America, drug mules can face the same jail times as murderers do, which is particularly interesting considering the factors that result in women becoming drug mules in the first place. Incarceration of women has important splllover effects.

Women across Europe and Central Asia face a similar fate; over 31,000 are incarcerated for drug offences. In some countries in Europe, over 70 percent of the female prisoners are there due to drug crimes. Russia by itself incarcerates almost 20,000 women for drugs. Countries such as Spain (which imprisons more than twice as many women for drugs than Italy does despite having a smaller population), have an extreme problem with imprisonment of drug mules from Latin America. Several European countries have extremely concerning numbers of imprisoned women on drug-related charges, demonstrating that it is a prominent hub for transport of women.

Central America not only has high rates of women incarcerated for drug trafficking, but also high rates of femicide and other forms of violence towards women. Drug trafficking and its inherent violence further normalize femicide, the mass killings of women. In May 2011, the head of a 20-year old woman was found in a phone booth as a warning for government authorities to stop interfering with criminal activity. The unrestrained display of masculinity continues to play a role in drug trafficking and reinforces the idea that women are worthless. In Latin America, several murders of women have been linked to a group of Colombian, Ecuadoran and Venezuelan drug traffickers. In El Salvador, 48 bodies were found in graves, 70 percent of which were female and 90 percent of which were found to have links to criminal gangs. As El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras became gateways for trafficking US-bound narcotics, these nations experienced a sudden, sharp rise in femicide. Raping and brutally executing women are often ways in which a gang can impose their power over other gangs, and “create cohesion within armed groups.” Several factors related to drug trafficking increase violence against women.

This problem is not only limited to Western Hemisphere. In India, drug addiction is becoming a problem among both men and women. Women are more likely to be abused and less likely to seek help due to the stigma they would be likely to face. Shaveta Sharma, a senior psychologist at a rehabilitation centre in Punjab explained that women, “suffer far more than male users, as they are neglected by their families and the state on one hand, and physically and sexually abused by dealers and partners on the other.” Drugs typically also affect women more than they do men because there is less care available for women. In any patriarchal society, female drug users are more stigmatized and less likely to seek treatment. Over 40 percent of female drug users in India said that, “they were forced to have sex in exchange for drugs or money.” There are currently few resources for women seeking help with their recovery from substance abuse. It is also difficult for a woman to reveal that she has been or is being sexually abused or trafficked. These incidences and the prevalence of drug trafficking in India is a call to action for a radically different approach. More funding must be specifically dedicated towards counseling and rehabilitation of drug addicts, especially females. A new approach to education is critical as well, so women feel less reluctant to come forward and seek help, and services feel more inclined to help them openly.

Drug trafficking has the potential to dramatically affect the life of almost every woman in several countries around the world. Women will continue to be incarcerated for drug-related crimes unless legislation that actively controls drug trafficking and the violence it brings is implemented and forcefully enforced. There are also currently no consequences for committing femicide. Current policies aiming to curb drug trafficking result in further victimizing women, as drug trafficking operations just become more under-cover. Effective laws must be enacted that put the protection of women’s rights at the forefront. Unless law enforcement and government officials are held responsible for safeguarding the lives of their constituents and fighting against the brutality that drug trafficking creates, the future of women globally will be severely compromised.

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