International Women’s Day: Exploring gender-sensitive approaches to drug-related issues

Today, International Women’s Day, the European Drugs Winter School (EDWS) draws to a close, having explored the theme of ‘Gender-sensitive approaches to drug-related issues’.  

During the course, the following sessions were dedicated to this topic.  

  • Structural gender inequality and gender differences in adolescent substance use (A multi-level study from 45 countries) — Alina Cosma, Trinity College, Dublin. 
  • Why is a gender perspective needed in the drugs field? Insight from the latest European drug data — Linda Montanari, EMCDDA. 
  • Gender responsive harm reduction interventions — Iciar Indave, EMCDDA, with practical examples from Joana Canedo, Manas Lisboa and Aura Roig, Metzineres, Barcelona. 
  • Are effective prevention interventions gender responsive? — Gregor Burkhart, EMCDDA. 
  • Gender approaches in the treatment of substance abuse disorders — Owen Bowden Jones, Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust. 

Women make up approximately a quarter of all people with serious drug problems in Europe and around one-fifth of all entrants to drug treatment. Yet much still needs to be done to provide interventions tailored to their needs, with many drug services remaining male-oriented. The need to scale up gender-sensitive services in Europe is highlighted in an EMCDDA miniguide ‘Women and drugs: health and social responses‘.  

‘The complex, overlapping issues faced by many women who use drugs require coordinated and integrated services. Across Europe, drug use, mental health networks and social services are often separated’, states the guide. It adds: ‘Adopting a gender-responsive approach to drug problems benefits gender-diverse people including women, men, and transgender and non-binary people’. 

The guide outlines key considerations for planning and delivering health and social responses for this group, reviews the availability and effectiveness of existing services and explores implications for policy and practice.  

Last year, the Swedish Presidency of the EU made gender one of its drug-related priorities. It focused specifically on access to treatment for women and men with drug use disorders; women’s role in drug supply and organised crime; gender and drug overdose; and gender-based violence and drugs.  

At the end of the six-month mandate, the Presidency issued a number of recommendations aimed at improving gender equality in drug policy. These included: integrating a gender perspective in all aspects of drug policy, data collection and evaluation; improving the collection of sex-disaggregated data and investing in research; involving women in all stages of developing initiatives, programmes and policies; and highlighting gender in the next EU Drug Action plan. 

In the field of drugs and drug addiction, gender-related information mainly refers to women (often concerning motherhood), and to gender differences between women and men. Little is known at present about drug use behaviours in non-binary and LGBTQIA+ populations, underlining the need for research in this area. 

Linda Montanari, Coordinator of the EMCDDA gender group and principal scientist at the Public health unit says: ‘People who use drugs, like any other individual in society, have specific gender-related challenges that should be addressed. These may translate into specific health and social needs, which call for appropriate responses. Women who use drugs are particularly likely to experience stigma and economic disadvantage, come from families with substance use problems and be the victims of abuse. Women’s needs should be considered and incorporated into all aspects of service design and delivery. Attention should also be paid to the LGBTQIA+ population and the role of gender regarding men who use drugs. Involving these groups in planning and developing relevant policies and programmes can improve services and increase their reach’. 

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