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Opium addiction poised to rip Chitral's social fabric

An ordeal of a 38-year-old Chitrali woman from homemaking to drug addiction unfolds the grim reality of women’s state of living in the mountainous district. Life hasn’t been easy for Shabana (her name has been changed for this story to protect her privacy). Her three children and husband rely on her for different chores – domestic and outdoor in particular.  However, various impediments have pushed her towards opium addictions, a widespread menace mainly in three union councils (UCs) of Chitral along the Afghanistan border. Her husband was a drug addict long before her marriage and proudly admits to spending more than 70 percent of the family’s income on opium. Shabana resisted addiction for as long as she could. For years, she tried to persuade her husband to lower his intake of opium and focus on his family. In return, she was beaten, called disobedient and almost divorced. Slowly, Shabana accepted the reality that opium will remain an indispensable part of the family. Soon she found herself addicted. For years now, opium is the rope that binds the family together- even though slowly poisoning them from inside. Most families in these three UCs – Arkari, Garam Chashma and Yarkhoon –can relate to the story of Shabana. Even if they are not opium addicts themselves, they are likely to have a neighbor, relative or a friend who is. In fact, opium is one of the most used, sold and the costly drug in Chitral. Its widespread addiction can be traced back to the adjacent borders of Afghanistan, from where the drug was brought by migrants even much more before the 1980’s Afghan war. High mountain passes and unguarded, porous borders have meant easy access to opium. Now, according to a thesis report submitted to the Department of Development Studies of Comsat University of Information Technology in 2010, “Effects of drugs on socio economic conditions of Chitral”, at least 30 percent of the women in villages bordering Afghanistan are addicted. The majority of the consumers are married, illiterate and above 30 years old. Shabana recalls that her addition began with a toothache: “I used to fight with my husband over this menace and our marriage was on the brink of divorce,” she said. “One day I complained of toothache and my husband suggested packing a pinch of opium in the tooth as remedy. It really worked. Not only toothache, but it’s also good for treating headache, backaches and anxiety.”  Her constant struggle to keep her marriage intact compelled Shabana into drug addiction. But at least she had a choice. For her 6-months-old daughter, addiction came from the very hand that was supposed to protect her from this poison – the hand of her own mother. Shabana admits her daughter is now also addicted to opium. “My baby used to just cry and cry after feeds and wouldn’t settle. She was just too difficult to soothe, but when I fed her after taking opium she slept peacefully.” recalled Shabana. Some suffer depression as they fail to manage domestic affairs, children’s education and household upkeep and start relying on this drug for relief. Others face social pressure and abuse which results in limiting their social growth and increasing their reliance on drugs to fit in with the opium addicted family or community. Razia (name also changed), 32, has the same ordeal to share. For the last five years she, too, has been addicted to opium. “Living with an addict in the family can certainly make you follow suit – you have no choice. One may not be able to help their loved ones get off opium addiction, and instead succumb to the pressure to become addict itself,” said Razia. Because any government apparatus to stop the increasing use of opium is virtually nonexistent, opium trading is becoming locally acceptable – raising the fears that the number of drug users will increase exponentially. “Opium is a hard drug and it’s not easy to quit. For the people who are already addicted, creating awareness sessions are not helping. These people need proper rehabilitation centres. There are no such centres in Chitral, said Ahmed Shah, a Chitrali youth activist. “We have some moral duties to people of the future. And girls play vital role in building future generation. It is important to educate girls first,” he added.

Shakeela, a volunteer for the Aga Khan Social Welfare Board, a prominent NGO in Chitral, has been educating women about the side effects of opium for half a decade. But so far her efforts have not borne fruit. “NGO’s can only do so much. Government has to step in and break the network which imports and sells this drug. This is a flourishing business these days” says Shakeela.

Usually, the supply of commodities is blocked when snowfall lashes the Lowari pass in the southeastern corner of the Chitral district, causing a shortage of basic commodities in the market. Naturally this affects opium availability as well. Normally 10 grams are sold for RS 500 but during this period when Chitral is completely isolated from rest of the country, the price shoots up to round Rs1500.

Chitral is generally a conservative society; it creates separate spaces for men and women. For example, separate schools and markets for girls and boys, separate hospital or doctors for men and women. Also, women’s movements are restricted: they are supposed to step out only under unavoidable circumstances.

“Since the new spaces of modernization have been occupied mostly by men, it leaves a great impact in opium addiction areas – in a sense that women mostly stay back in the villages at home and therefore close to opium sessions. While men may leave villages for work or get jobs outside after getting education and therefore might get off the culture of opium intake,” said Israruddin, a social entrepreneur in Chitral.

Besides health, drug addiction equally affects behavior and social interaction. Several reports revealed that people have committed suicide because of this addiction. With limited household income it is difficult to afford this drug, which leads to domestic stress, quarrels and fights.

Exactly a decade ago, when drug addiction got rampant in Chitral, Dr. Iqbaluddin was commissioned by the Aga Khan Social Welfare Board to combat the endemic substance abuse and help people improve their quality of life. He is convinced that government holds the key to releasing these masses from addiction.

Besides health hazards, he also lamented the role of police in controlling drugs. “Anxiety and tension – commonly found disorders among women of Chitral, attract women towards opium addiction. People are addicted because it’s an accessible drug. If government sets up a proper anti narcotics squad in police department and take strict measures, the situation can get better.” said Dr. Iqbaluddin.

Chitral is a women-operated society, but the man still rules supreme. Almost all the work is done by the women – farming, weaving, washing, caring for the herds and children, running the water mill, cooking etc.  Yet opium addiction forces a woman like Shabana to face social isolation.

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