‘Our laws increase discrimination and stigma’

Three organisations, Women’s Coalition Against Cancer (Wocaca), Centre for Human Right Education Advice and Assistance (Chreaa) and Youth Watch Society (Yowso) have collaborated in a drug policy reform to address the harms caused by the current laws. In their March 2018 report, the network exposes serious gaps that are derailing the fight against drug abuse. Our staff writer ALBERT SHARRA caught up with Wocaca executive director Maud Mwakasungula, who is championing the project, to discuss some of the findings and challenges facing the fight against drug abuse.

Mwakasungula: Most people are not aware of laws guiding the drug issues in Malawi

What are some of the issues emerging from the report?

The major challenge we have encountered as exposed in the report is that most people are not aware of the actual policies and laws guiding the drug issues in Malawi and there is a lot of misinformation. In the absence of right information, people tend to speculate and assume on issues. This is serious problem in Malawi. Thus, there is need for comprehensive research on drug issues and their impacts on the people in Malawi. This will help those in the advocacy to run campaigns that are based on facts and reality on the ground.

What is your take on the country’s laws on drugs abuse?

Malawi as a country is making remarkable progress in the fight against drug abuse. There are a number of interventions underway. However, as a country we need more interventions, particularly sensitisation campaigns. One of the key interventions that should be promoted is counseling services for drug abusers.

The current laws increase discrimination and stigma against drug abusers. They do not support reduction programmes for people using drugs.  With these laws, we view people who use drugs as outcasts, evil, bad, criminals yet they are our own brothers, sisters, our own children, our own professionals.

The recent death of one young lady is an indication that many young people are using drugs including professionals.  Therefore, we must not turn a blind eye, but address the drug abuse concern as a nation. Let us look at people in drug abuse as a marginalised group, which needs our support and help including spiritual help.

You are advocating for counseling services in the fight against drug abuse. How relevant is this approach?

People who use drugs in Malawi do not receive drug treatment programmes in terms of rehabilitation. Therefore, counseling for people who use drugs is an essential part of drug abuse treatment.  This can be in form of cognitive behavioural therapy, family counseling, and other therapy approaches that can help people recover from addiction, stay clean, and continue their lives free from drugs. That is why it is important to create harm reduction programmes in Malawi, which can look at rehabilitation of people, who use drugs with the aim of integrating them into the society.

The problem is that people who use drugs in Malawi are discriminated and stigmatised by their communities and even their own families. This pushes them to continue using drugs or go back to drug use, hence exposing them to the risk of HIV infection, STIs including cancer.

Drug abuse is usually a private activity and most people do not want to come in the open. What viable approaches do you think should be adopted to influence people to come out?

Much as this is a private or personal issue, the most important thing to know is that this is a national concern that needs collective intervention. Therefore, one approach is to. First, accept that we have a problem and start talking about it openly.  We must accept that people who use drugs are in our midst and need help, they need to be embraced and accepted without judging them, without discriminating them.  Secondly, for drug addicts to come out, we must look at our polices and laws to encourage them to come out in the open.

From your interactions with drug abusers, what are some of the commonly used drugs?

From our interactions with people who use drugs some of the commonly used  drugs are Indian Hemp [chamba], pharmaceutical inhalants such as cough syrup and mixtures, methylated spirit, mindoli which has high alcoholic content.  Some use cocaine although it is expensive to source and cumbersome to find. Mostly, it is chamba because it is easily available and cheaper.

Concerns about high drug and alcohol abuse have been around. What do you think should be done to solve this problem once and for all?

We need to increase our space for the marginalised groups like people living with HIV and Aids and others such as people using drugs, sex workers and many others by protecting their rights and refrain from promoting stigma and discrimination against them.


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