Armed with Kalashnikovs, two Taliban soldiers forced their way into a home near Kandahar last month, searching for a 40-year-old woman. They had come to arrest Farzana, a mother of eight children who was suspected of using drugs.
Farzana’s husband, Nasraullah, had been arrested a few weeks before, but had escaped from a moving van and was in hiding.
The soldiers were met by Farzana’s seven-year-old daughter, Osmania. Trembling and gasping for breath, Farzana said, Osmania told them that she was not there. Osmania promised that her mother would surrender when she returned. (Farzana and her family do not have surnames, which is common in rural Afghanistan).
This was another moment in a desperate cat-and-mouse game Farzana and her children were playing to avoid the Taliban crackdown on illicit drugs announced in April.
Farzana was indeed addicted to heroin and opium and some of her children – all under age 14 – were too. But prison would offer neither safety nor therapy, and shunned by the rest of their family and neighbours, they longed to stay together.
Farzana’s life is part of an escalating tragedy. As Afghanistan grapples with poverty and starvation, opioid addiction is raging. More than 10 per cent of Afghanistan’s 40 million people are addicts according to the United Nations, and drug-treatment programs are scarce.
Drug addiction is not a new problem in Afghanistan. The country has been the world’s largest cultivator of opium and producer of opiates for at least 30 years. But rates of addiction have skyrocketed.
UN reports say that the number of female addicts grew more than 600 per cent over the past decade, as the extended military conflict left them vulnerable to anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, common risk factors for developing drug-use disorders.
Since the Taliban’s ban came into effect, thousands of men who use drugs have been rounded up and imprisoned, according to two Taliban police officers. The Globe and Mail interviewed the Taliban officers, one from Kandahar and one from Helmand province, in Pashto over WhatsApp. The Globe is not identifying them because they fear retribution for speaking publicly on the issue.
But part of the story is largely kept secret. Women and children are being imprisoned for illicit drug use too.
Official statistics report that women represent less than one per cent of the country’s addicts. But the police chief from Kandahar told The Globe that the Taliban prefer to hide the problem of female addicts because they believe that women who use drugs bring deep dishonour in patriarchal Taliban society.
Almost one million Afghan women use drugs, according to the most recent international data. A Kandahar addiction-support volunteer told The Globe that women are suffering in staggering numbers. Some are in hiding and others are in prison, he said, and some are preyed upon by men for sex. The Globe is not revealing his identity because he is afraid of persecution for speaking to the media.
Under the Taliban crackdown, he said, women live in grave danger.
Farzana said that people swear at us and throw stones, saying they want us to die.” She is terrified that her children will starve to death but acknowledges that she is so addicted that she often buys drugs before food. Some days, they have no food at all; on others, they are lucky to get dry bread.
“I have heard of people who have sold their daughters for drugs,” she said. “But I love my daughters and I hope I won’t have to sell them.”
Noor Bibi, a 30-year-old addict and mother of seven in Kandahar province lives in hiding. She, too, is terrified of being imprisoned and losing her children.
“I must hide indoors,” she said. But she risks arrest to beg for food and money to buy heroin and opium.
“When I can’t get it, I cry like a crazy woman, I am out of control.”
Ms. Bibi’s 40-year-old husband, Asadullah, is incapacitated by addiction and is often away or in jail. Her voice cracked when she spoke of her children.
“My eldest son is 13 years old and uses opium and heroin every day.” Her youngest daughter is two years old and very small for her age, she said.
“I am scared even my baby is addicted.”
Her situation is not unusual. In 2021, the UN Office on Drugs and Crimes and UNICEF reported that as many as half of parents in the north and south of Afghanistan are giving drugs to their children to treat headaches, fevers and stomach problems.
Women also give opioids to their children when they are short of food, the addiction-support volunteer said. He worries that an even larger percentage of Afghanistan’s next generation may be plagued by addiction.
He and other Afghans who spoke with The Globe said that with the economy in free fall and drug prices rising, Afghanistan’s female drug users and their children are at acute risk of starvation or death.
There were 102 drug-treatment facilities before the Taliban returned to power in August. Only five of them were open to women and children, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
But since the recent crackdown, the Taliban are bringing some female addicts and their children to prisons, forcing them to go cold turkey among hardened criminals. In Kandahar’s Sarpoza prison, drug-addicted mothers and their children are housed separately alongside more than 1,400 male addicts already there, according to prison director Movlavi Hussaini.
Addicts there live in shocking conditions, Mr. Hussaini told The Globe. The women suffer from insect-borne diseases and illnesses linked to raw-sewage exposure. The prison is more than 20 per cent over its capacity and has only two doctors for its 2,260 prisoners, almost all of whom need medical help, he said.
“But without medicines, what can they do?”
One prisoner, Fahima, who appeared unwell, spoke with us as a toddler hid behind her. She trembled uncontrollably as she described her two months in jail with her five children who are also addicted to opium. The eldest is just nine years old.
A physician at Sarpoza, Ghulam Zawak, said that women arrive at the prison in much poorer health than men, and with severe mental-health problems.
But Dr. Zawak is not trained in psychiatry or women’s health and is not able to help them, he said. He has begged the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to help Afghanistan’s addicts. But they told him that “treating addiction is not in our plan.”
Luc Christen, ICRC public relations officer in Kabul confirmed by e-mail that the ICRC does not have plans to help with addiction treatment at Sarpoza or elsewhere in Afghanistan. “This is not our field of expertise,” he wrote.
But female and child addicts need urgent help, Dr. Zawak said, or Afghanistan’s addiction crisis could overwhelm society in the years to come.
“Addiction is a disease and prisons are not going to help.”
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