The media reporting about Kashmir having tens of thousands of female drug addicts is unfairly fancy and fake. But that never means a small section of Kashmir women are not into drug abuse, peddling and exploitation, reports Babra Wani
The memory of that fateful night remains etched in Sadaf’s mind as if it were yesterday, back in 2013. She was a blushing new bride in her mid-twenties, her heart brimming with hopes and dreams, believing that marriage would be eternal bliss.
However, one evening, her husband stumbled home, his movements erratic, his eyes glazed over. Instantly, Sadaf sensed that something was wrong. “He seemed like a stranger, not in control of his senses,” she recalled.
As days passed, his bizarre behaviour became the new normal. Desperate for answers, Sadaf implored him to open up to her, but he remained withdrawn and mute.
Left with no other recourse, she secretly contacted his friends, who shattered her world with their response: “He is addicted to drugs.”
Sadaf’s picture-perfect life had crumbled. Still, she clung to the hope that their love could conquer all, that she could rescue her husband from the abyss of addiction. But he had descended too far into the darkness, refusing even to listen to her pleas to quit.
Then, driven to desperation, she uttered the words that would alter the course of her life irreversibly: “If you don’t stop, I will start too.” He did not stop. And slowly, she descended into the abyss alongside him, the daily ritual of drug use enveloping them both in its cruel embrace.
It was not until a year later that her family noticed the tell-tale signs and intervened. They broke through the fog and compelled Sadaf to seek treatment. It saved her life.
Soon after, her husband also entered rehab. Their journey to recovery was challenging, but together, they found their way back to the light.
“Our families pulled us back from the brink,” Sadaf said. Without them, she shuddered to think where they would be today. All she knew was that she would never take her life for granted again.
The insidious tentacles of drug addiction have cruelly ensnared women from all walks of life. Victims apart, as mothers, sisters, daughters, or wives, women agonise as they helplessly watch their loved ones descend into darkness. They shed endless tears as drugs twist the souls of the people they once knew, making them strangers. Yet, they hope against hope that their loved ones will break free, even as addiction tears their hearts and homes apart.
Women are also inflicted by drugs and there are many women addicts in Kashmir.
Despite reports suggesting that drug abuse among women is high, medical facilities and practitioners hold a different perspective.
A 2022 study by the Psychiatry Department of the Government Medical College, put the number of female addicts at significantly lower than males. It revealed that Kashmir had the highest number of overall drug addicts, surpassing Punjab, which had previously held the top spot.
The study further disclosed that 67,468 individuals were dependent on psychoactive drugs, with heroin being the most commonly used substance.
“According to the survey and daily OPD records, the number of females grappling with substance use is lower than that of males. This year, I may have encountered around 20-25 females with substance use disorders,” IMHANS professor, Dr Yasir Rather, who also led the study, remarked. “Even if they are involved in drug use, it is primarily limited to cannabis and soft drugs. Women also tend to overdose on painkillers or various medications to cope with their emotional turmoil.”
Fall from the ‘High’
One early morning, Zikra found herself waiting outside a pharmacy near the Jammu and Kashmir Police-run Drug De-addiction Centre (DDC) in Srinagar’s downtown. She nervously rubbed her hands, acutely aware of the judgmental glances from those around her. As she waited for her turn, she contemplated her life. Being the eldest in her family of four, it fell upon her to bear the weight of those judgmental stares, because it was the only way to save her family.
As she waited for her turn, a woman visibly distressed and out of breath, bumped into Zikra. An annoyed Zikra attempted to confront the woman, leading to a heartfelt conversation between the two. It was a conversation born of shared pain, agony, and heart-wrenching stories.
The other woman, likely in her forties, had come to purchase medication for her daughter, also an addict. “I lied to my husband, saying I was going to buy oil. Please, allow me to use your turn to buy the medicines so I can get home quickly,” the woman, who was clutching a jute bag and a bottle, pleaded. “I have locked my daughter in her room, and my husband is unaware of her addiction. I want to save my daughter, and that’s why I need these medicines.”
Tears welled up in the woman’s eyes as she shared her story with Zikra. “If my husband finds out about our daughter, he will throw both of us out of the house. I am getting my daughter treated without his knowledge.”
Zikra was at the pharmacy to buy medication for her younger brother, also a drug addict. It was a heartbreaking coincidence that connected these two women in their desperate pursuit of hope.
The woman had journeyed several kilometres from her residence to access the pharmacy since no local shops stock the medications she required. “My daughter has been battling addiction for some time now,” the middle-aged woman told Zikra. “I recently discovered it, and I will do everything within my power to free her from its grip. I fear that if people find out, no one will marry her.”
Upon hearing the woman’s plight, Zikra contemplated her own life, which bore a striking resemblance. “I am also endeavouring, like you, to rescue my brother, in whatever capacity, large or small,” she lamented, struggling to find the right words. “I must care for him and his well-being, even if it means sacrificing my own. I will do it.”
Unlike Zikra who also is the eldest in her family, Amna, 25, another eldest in her family, had led a “reckless” and “carefree” life. She began smoking marijuana at the age of 17. “I just wanted to fit in with my friends. So, I adopted almost all the bad habits you can think of, including marijuana. We called it a joint and I used to smoke two to three joints a day. But I remember the first time I tried it; I was having a very bad day,” Amna recalled. “A friend of mine, upon seeing my mood, invited me to join him, and he offered me this cigarette-like thing, and that too for free. I, along with my friend and two others, sat in a park, and I started smoking that cigarette. I felt on top of the world, and I still remember that feeling.”
However, her friends also advised Amna to drink water or consume something sour to counteract the effects of the cigarette. “It was high-quality marijuana, and I smoked the whole thing. But then, I ate tamarind to counter the influence.” That marked the beginning of her association with marijuana. “The circle quickly turned into an addiction for me, and I stopped caring about everything else.”
As time passed, Amna’s health deteriorated. She began experiencing constant tremors, often mistaken for other health issues. She assumed her parents were oblivious to her life’s developments, but she was mistaken. Her friends had taken pictures of her smoking and using substances, which had already reached her parents. Initially, they remained in denial.
One day, Amna clashed with her parents, particularly her father, and the argument escalated to physical violence and Amna ended up receiving a slap from her father. “I know what you are doing. I have pictures of you smoking and using drugs. Do you realise you are losing yourself?” her father confronted her.
“I was 20 at the time,” Amna recalled an inconspicuous tear rolling down her cheek. “That was a moment of realisation. I had always been their favourite, the pampered child. But I had let them down. This realisation led to another: I needed to be saved. I had only one option, to turn back, to seek help from my parents. I remember a week later; I mustered the courage and went to my father, asking for his help.”
Amna’s parents wasted no time in getting her the help she needed. Visits to psychiatrists and doctors became routine for Amna and her family, with both parents accompanying her to appointments with medical professionals and counsellors.
Like Zikra, Amna and her family also had to endure judgmental stares, a price they were willing to pay for their daughter’s sake. “It was for our daughter, so I didn’t care much,” Amna’s determined father stated. “A parent’s love knows no bounds. Being a parent is not easy, and no parent can bear to see their child in pain.”
It is pertinent to mention that with proper medical treatment, love, care, and family support, Amna’s seemingly hopeless journey was gradually infused with new hope. “It has been nearly five years since I have used drugs. While I have regrets that will linger, Alhamdulillah, I am on a better path now,” she affirmed.
Amna’s story, however, is an exception, as many individuals battling addiction do not experience such positive outcomes. While drug abuse is more prevalent among males, the existence of female abusers cannot be disregarded.
Availability and Peer Pressure
Although many reports and research studies highlight drug abuse among Kashmiri youth, particularly males, it is often overlooked that some females have also fallen prey to drug addiction. Factors responsible for drug addiction among females are diverse and in a way completely different.
“My parents used to fight incessantly, and it often made me feel very uncomfortable. I wanted a normal family, but mine was anything but normal,” Seema, 16, confessed, her gaze fixed on her hands.
She vividly recalled the day that turned her life upside down. Her parents’ shouts reverberated through the house as their argument once again escalated into violence. Seema felt a heavy weight on her chest. “I felt so terrible that I decided to leave my home,” she said.
As dusk settled over Srinagar streets, Seema wandered, with no specific destination in mind. She only knew that she needed to escape the toxicity at home. Exhausted, she found herself in a park, where a group of boys huddled together, passing something between them.
Hardened by her circumstances, Seema approached them. “I asked if I could join them,” she recalled.
The boys wordlessly motioned for her to sit, and as tears welled up in her eyes, one of them handed her a pouch of powder. “It will make you feel better,” he assured her. Seema hesitated only for a moment before bringing the substance to her nose. She coughed as the acrid smell filled her senses.
Initially, a soothing numbness washed over her, but as she stumbled home later, her head spun and her stomach churned. “My health began to deteriorate,” she remembered. Her frantic parents rushed her to a clinic, where tests confirmed that she had overdosed.
Seema confronted the harsh reality. She was just another young victim ensnared in the web of substance abuse that tightened its grip on Kashmir. A psychiatrist urged her family to cease their constant arguments for Seema’s mental well-being.
Now, an uneasy silence blankets their home. Seema’s past mistakes haunt her. “At least it gave me solace for a couple of moments,” she said. For girls like Seema, the line between solace and ruin grows thinner with each passing day. Once an innocent child, she discovered a darker side of herself in her pursuit of peace.
Dr Anoosha, Incharge Medical Officer at DDC Srinagar, listed peer pressure, relationship issues, family conflicts, parental disputes, bullying, and mental health problems as contributors to young women’s vulnerability and subsequent drug addiction.
“Family and relationship issues, as well as peer pressure, are common factors we often see in female drug victims who seek our help,” concurred the officials at the PCR centre while echoing Dr Anoosha’s thoughts.
According to the majority of patients with a history of drug abuse, the availability of drugs in the market is a pervasive issue. “My patients have informed me that even street vendors are now selling drugs,” noted one counsellor. “Drugs are readily available in shops, and drug peddling is alarmingly common.”
“Most of the heroin comes from certain areas in North Kashmir, such as Kupwara, and is supplied to be sold in the South,” revealed a former drug addict currently undergoing treatment. “Drugs are also procured from parts of South Kashmir, especially Sangam in Anantnag.”
Another patient mentioned procuring drugs from over twenty female peddlers on various occasions. “Some of them were quite young, and some were married. Some even joined us in using the substances, while others focused solely on selling,” the patient admitted.
In recent months, numerous women have been arrested for drug peddling. Besides, police have busted several drug rings, involving both men and women.
Impact of Drugs
Dr Yasir emphasised the detrimental impact of substance use on a person’s overall health: “Substance use is a path to destruction, affecting a person’s cognitive, emotional, physical, and social well-being.”
Apart from financial debts, drug abuse can cause serious health problems, including damage to the liver, kidneys, and reproductive system. Abusers and addicts run the risk of contracting chronic infections like Hepatitis C or even HIV. Moreover, drug use can lead to sexual exploitation and involvement in drug trafficking, and, in some tragic cases, it can even result in death.
“I have used heroin with more than ten different girls on various occasions,” admitted a patient at a Srinagar medical facility specialising in heroin addiction treatment. “I remember once going with friends to a place where I saw a beautiful college girl who started injecting heroin with us. Most of the girls were teens and some were in their twenties from Rajbagh. I have also done drugs with girls from Anantnag who were also into selling drugs.”
Dr Sarah Khalid, a Medical Officer at IMHANS Drug De-addiction Centre (DDC), shared that currently, 8-12 women seek follow-up addiction treatment from her. She indicated that the age group most commonly affected by female drug addiction usually falls within the 18-30 age bracket. “It is not limited to single women; even married women are often ensnared. In some cases, their partners are also involved,” she said.
“We have also encountered addicted women with children. I recall a young woman who married at a very young age and was betrayed by her husband,” a counsellor at DDC Srinagar revealed. “She turned to drugs and became an addict, despite having two kids.”
Not Many Women
Dr Arjuman Fayaz, a postgraduate resident at IMHANS researching female drug addiction in Kashmir, remarked, “Over the past year of my research, I have come to realise that the number of female patients seeking treatment is not as high as reported. Last year, only about 35 addicted women sought help at de-addiction centres, hospitals, and Addiction Treatment Facilities across Kashmir. While drug abuse may be common among women in society, many do not seek treatment.”
According to Dr Arjuman, the situation is even rarer in rural areas and other districts, as very few women opt for treatment at district-level ATFs. Patients from different districts often avoid seeking treatment at local ATFs to avoid recognition. Since women keep their addiction a secret from their families, they typically enter treatment only after their families become aware of the abuse.
Some females become victims of sexual abuse or get involved in drug trafficking due to their substance use. “We have seen cases of this,” Dr Arjuman added.
Regarding addiction treatment, Dr Yasir emphasised, “Addiction is a disease that requires pharmacological interventions like medication, opioid substitution therapy, and psychotherapies.”
Dr Yasir Rather pointed out that the main drivers of drug addiction are easy access and peer pressure. “However, women become more vulnerable if their partners or family members are substance users. Mental health conditions like mania, personality disorders, childhood ADHD, or conduct disorders also increase vulnerability in women.”
Many addicted patients have a history of sexual abuse, which makes them susceptible to exploitation for drugs once they become addicted. “Disinhibition caused by substances can also lead to inappropriate sexual behaviour.”
They noted that heroin prices vary across Kashmir, and drug use forms a complex web of connections. “A chain develops as users connect with dealers. Heroin is expensive but the most common drug, while marijuana is cheaper but still widespread.”
The Harsh Reality
Regarding women procuring drugs, Dr Yasir said they often rely on addicted partners or friends. “Women also get involved in trafficking because they are less likely to be suspected by the police, making peddling easier.”
“Most women who tread this path do so due to peer pressure or relationship issues. However, in all the stories I have heard, these women, regardless of age or background, have a back story,” lamented Dr Arjuman. “Another pattern I have noticed over the past year is that drug abuse among women is more common in urban areas, but we certainly can’t deny that it also affects those from rural backgrounds.”
The substances most commonly abused by women include heroin, other opioids, marijuana, alcohol, sedatives, cocaine, and more.
“Most patients seeking treatment are addicted to heroin and injection drugs,” stated Dr Arjuman. “While there are other drugs as well, they don’t cause severe symptoms like heroin, so people usually don’t seek treatment for those.”
Officials at the Drug De-addiction and Rehabilitation Centre run by the Police in Srinagar reported that they see far fewer female addicts compared to males. “Overall, we have assisted around 30-40 women, which is a small number. Females don’t come as often,” said an official. “These women rarely seek help, and they don’t come regularly. Our centre conducts awareness programmes about drugs, but as you know, female victims don’t come forward as readily as men. Moreover, we lack an inpatient facility for women.”
Besides the government-run centres, several private rehab and de-addiction facilities operate in Kashmir. Some of these facilities claimed to have no female patients. “We mostly receive male victims,” was a common refrain.
Judgement and stigma
“I have seen female addicts discontinue treatment or fail to return for follow-ups. I believe stigma is the primary reason,” one psychologist who counsels at a drug rehab centre, said, wishing to remain anonymous. “I remember a teenage girl who came for heroin treatment but stopped after a couple of visits. Many women are in similar situations.”
Sharing an instance, a female psychologist recounted, “Once, during my internship, a middle-aged man yelled at me and my friend while we were waiting in line outside a counselling room, saying, ‘What are you doing here? This is for drug addicts!’ It demonstrated the stigma and made me realise how challenging it must be for addicted women seeking help.”
Dr Arjuman echoed the counsellor’s sentiments, stating that fewer women come forward due to the stigma associated with addiction and concerns about how they will be perceived and treated if their addiction becomes known. These fears act as significant barriers to seeking help.