Malawi NGO Bemoans Stigma Towards People Who Used Drugs

By Allan Mthandizi

Malawi’s Civil Society Organization, the Women’s Coalition Against Cancer- (WOCACA) has bemoaned high rate of stigma and discrimination towards people who use drugs. 

WOCACA Drug Policy Reform Project Officer, Alexander Zenasi was speaking at Chinsapo in Lilongwe when the organization organized awareness campaign towards drug policy reforms and need for harm reduction programs in the midst of increased stigma and discrimination on people who use drugs. 

Mr. Zenasi said people who use drugs are our brothers and sisters who can be integrated back into the society and take part in the development of the country. 

He further said “The principal drug control approach in the world has for a long time been fixed on punitive criminal justice responses at the expense of human rights and public health with more resources spent on police, judges, prosecutors and prisons. And the case is not different with Malawi which is characterized by punitive measures by law enforcers to those who either use or handle the drugs subjected to equal punishments as drug addicts.” said Zenasi.

Zenasi said the effectiveness of this approach on the offenders as to whether they lead to behavioral change or not raises more questions than answers. No doubt the current drug control approach focuses on punitive criminal justice responses seem not to solve the problem.  

 The campaign comes from the background that Malawi is not spared from the negative consequences of the war on drugs including severe human rights violations directly related to criminalization and stigmatization of people involved in drug use including women which is attributed to poor policies.

WOCACA feels that drug policy debate evolves in more countries including in Malawi, realizing that punishing people who use drugs is not the right approach hence need for a more humane, effective and health based response approach. 

WOCACA is therefore advocating for evidence based drug prevention, harm reduction and drug treatment services as well as alternatives to incarceration and arrest.

 “The approach requires a review of the national drug control regulations using relevant guidance hence need for advocacy for such reforms in Malawi so as to safeguard human rights including those of women using drugs who are the most vulnerable.” said Zenasi.

With the rate of stigma and discrimination towards the drug users, WOCACA has launched this project in collaboration with the Centre for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance (CHREAA), Youth Watch Society (YWOSO) and United Religious Initiative- (URI) to advocate and lobby for a change to the existing drug laws and policies in Malawi which affects most women rights, the youth and the society in general. This intervention will create room for investments in effective and cost effective harm reduction responses for the people using drugs including women.   This project is being funded by AIDS & Rights Alliance for Southern Africa- (ARASA)

Zenasi confirmed that with the rapid increase in population growth and increased levels of poverty, Malawi is experiencing numerous social challenges including gender based violence that prone more women to drug use. 

WOCACA analysis indicate that the problem has not spared sex workers in the society that are either involved in the actual use or handling of the drugs in form of selling or transportation. 

Issues of stigma and discrimination will be closely assessed under this project as to how the society accepts back those who have finished the jail sentences.  In most cases, rights for women to find jobs or acquire loans from various institutions for small scale business in the society are not enjoyed due to the negative perception of the society that treats them as criminals attributed by the current laws, a factor that negatively impacts on their socioeconomic status.

Women’s Coalition Against Cancer- (WOCACA) is a registered Non-Governmental Organization in Malawi that aims at empowering women and children to ensure quality life and care through advocacy, campaigns, counselling, public awareness, research, training and networking on issues related to cancer in particular on breast and cervical cancer. 

Through the organization focus on cancer in relation to HIV epidemic, human rights, advocacy and networking has been various international forums in regard to debate on the need for drug policy reforms and importance of creating harm reduction programs.

Zenasi said; this project are not promoting the use of drugs, nor advocating for global debate around the legalization of drugs. But we are convinced that a drug- free world must take multisector approach which includes looking at the current drug laws and creation of harm reduction programs which will help tackle issues of drugs in relation to human rights, HIV epidemic, stigma and discrimination. .0.

In June 2017, WOCACA partnered with CHREAA, YWOSO and URI in organizing a successful global week of action on “Don’t Punish, Support Campaign’ which was aimed at raising awareness on harms that are being caused by criminalization of people who use drugs hence contributing to stop the HIV epidemic and by calling on reform of government actions on drugs. This campaign was supported by AIDS & Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA) and International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC).

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