Beyond the male: The case for a gender analysis of illicit drugs in Burma

July 19, 2013

WCRP: On June 26, Burma’s anti-narcotics task force marked the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking by destroying over 4.4 billion kyat worth of illegal drugs. This move, along with others aimed at rehabilitating drug users and developing alternative crops for poppy farmers, seems fitting in light of recent international recognition of the country’s drug problems. In the past year Burma has been named by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) as the world’s second largest producer of opium and the “top source of illicit methamphetamine pills in East and Southeast Asia.”

However, a great deal remains to be addressed regarding illicit drugs in Burma. Last month, the Human Rights Foundation of Monland (HURFOM) published Bitter Pills: Breaking the Silence Surrounding Drug Problems in the Mon Community, aiming to highlight large information gaps about the rates, demographics, and social impact of drug use and trade amongst the ethnic Mon population. WCRP echoes the call for greater action and investigation into the community’s drug problems, but also asserts that research should reflect and explore how this issue uniquely impacts women. Studies like the Paung Women’s Organisation’s 2006 report on drugs and women serve as an example of how a gender analysis can reframe the drug issue and highlight the similar social and economic challenges faced by ethnic women throughout the country.

International reporting and community-level observations of the drugs trade in Burma reveal that it is usually perceived as a male-dominated sphere. While research and testimonies gathered for this article do not contradict this assumption, they suggest that nonetheless some women are using or selling drugs and that, where this is the case, the challenges these activities pose for women are different from those encountered by their male counterparts. Furthermore, research reveals that even when women are not involved with drugs themselves, they may have indirect exposure through family members that can lead to serious mental or physical stress.

Justification for pursuing a gender analysis of illicit drugs in Burma is presented herein and draws from community opinions and two interviews held this month with the director of the Mon Youth Progressive Organisation (MYPO), an ethnic Mon group that campaigns for social, political and environmental rights, and the director of the border-based health group Border Health Initiative (BHI).

In their interviews, the directors said it is unusual for women to use illicit drugs, but they were both able to name some instances. MYPO’s director alleged that female drug users in Mon State are predominantly prostitutes who encounter drugs through work, whilst in eastern areas along the Thai-Burma border drug problems have been identified amongst young teenage girls. BHI’s director discussed one case in which a drug-abusing husband had drawn his wife into addiction. However, it is unlikely that these female drug users would feel confident seeking help from Burma’s already limited drug rehabilitation services. According to a 2010 UNODC report, “The cultural and social stigmatization of female drug users [make them] very difficult to reach with harm reduction services.”[1] The report went on to note that only 4-7% of drug users in Burma who received services from AIDS or harm reduction programs that year were women.

As for women selling drugs, the MYPO director said that many women inside Burma are reportedly dealing and smuggling, though she said it is less common along the Thai border due to a more rigorous security presence there. Testimonies collected for HURFOM’s Bitter Pills report support this claim, with various sources from southern Ye Township observing female drug traders in their communities. A farmer from Khaw Law village identified one or two women selling drugs in his area,[2] and a teacher from Han Gam village said, “One surprising thing is that our village is full of female drug smugglers.”[3]

With limited options for earning income and heavy pressure to support their families, women may experience a disproportionate incentive to deal drugs or excessive difficulty when attempting to exit the trade. Interviews collected by HURFOM have shown that women are regularly paid less than men for performing the same jobs and, except in certain industries, have a harder time getting hired for work when men are available.[4] Since the degree of hardship in an individual’s financial circumstances is directly linked to the lure of selling drugs, women are especially vulnerable.

“When [women] work in a factory they just get a small wage,” said the director of MYPO. “But if they sell drugs they can earn a lot without as much energy.”

In addition to these direct implications, one of the major indirect consequences of drug addiction is its impact on the user’s family. A 2002 UNODC paper exploring women’s drug-related problems in India echoes reports collected from women in Burma:

“The adverse impact of drug use on families is tremendous. It is the family to which the dependent user turns to or turns on either in emotional or physical distress or crisis. Relationships suffer, financial sources get depleted, health costs increase. There are greater employment problems and increased emotional stress…Within the family, it is often the woman, in the role of wife or mother who is most affected by the individual’s drug use, and has to bear a significant part of the family burden.”[5]

Given Mon women’s traditional role in the household as the primary caretaker and head of family finances, they are reported to come under particular stress when a family’s income is diverted to drug use or new expenses crop up from associated arrests or medical bills. For example, two women from Three Pagodas Pass detailed how their drug-abusing children started stealing from the family. When the family’s income dwindles, pressure on women increases to supplement the shortfall and provide for their families. The strain, both financial and emotional, can be severe.

“His reason for using drugs was that he needed to get energy for his job,” said a Three Pagodas Pass resident about her husband. “At first he just took half a tablet [of methamphetamine] per day, but later he used a whole tablet and now he can’t stop using. Now he takes 4 tablets per day. It costs 120 Baht per tablet. We cannot survive on his income because he just spends it on drugs…we have almost lost our house. Our daughter will start Grade 8 this year. It seems that we almost can’t afford to let her go to school. Our family feels so hurt…I feel embarrassed that our neighbours know about his drug use”.[6]

According to a physician from Kyainnsiekyi Township, “Men are lazy and unintelligible after using drugs, and so mostly are not able to work. As a result of this their wives, children and parents, who depend on their income, are confronted with a daily income problem”.[7]

Whilst women struggle to cope with drug-use in their families, they often face additional criticism or ostracism from a community that may view them as having failed in their role as wife and mother.

Finally, empirical evidence in Burma reveals that proximity to drugs makes women more vulnerable to physical and sexual violence, exploitation, and psychological abuse, whether they are using or trading themselves or related to someone who is. For example, MYPO’s director reported that female drug dealers might be forced to have sex with authorities in order to avoid arrest, an outcome that is much less likely for male traffickers. Women in Burma are already at a substantial disadvantage regarding access to education, health, justice, livelihood and food security, and therefore are at greater risk for severe repercussions associated with illicit drugs.

Taken as a whole, drug problems in Burma deepen existing gender inequalities. Without a concerted look at the unique context surrounding women, disparities in rehabilitation services and education campaigns will substantially hamper efforts to rein in the country’s sizeable drug trade. A gender analysis of Burma’s illicit drug problems is needed to more effectively address relevant socio-economic drivers and illuminate one of the most invisible aspects of the issue – women’s distinctive roles and experiences.


[1] Zar Ni Soe (UNODC Myanmar), ‘Female Drug Users and Services’ Accessibility in Burma’, 2010.

[2] HURFOM, Bitter Pills: Breaking the Silence Surrounding Drug Problems in the Mon Community, p.21

[3] HURFOM Interview, Han Gam village, May 2013.

[4] HURFOM, Destination Unknown: Doubt and Optimism Toward IDP Resettlement in Mon State, 2012.

[5] UNODC, Women and Drug Abuse: The Problem in India, 2002.

[6] HURFOM, Bitter Pills, pp.36-7.

[7] Ibid., p.39.

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