Blood, Sex and Money: Patriarchy and The Drugs Trade

December 20, 2016

In a turn described by the latest UN World Drug Report as “a landmark moment in global drug policy”, 2016 saw the General Assembly hold the third session in its history in which all Member States agreed to continue countering the illegal narcotics trade. Considering the scale and severity of the crisis, it may surprise many that there have been so few sessions in the General Assembly dedicated to tackling this complex issue. Whilst individual committees have undertaken many related debates and attempted solutions, the diversity of the international drug problem means that they have seldom been effective; cooperation between all nations and committees is arguably necessary to make headway in reducing the effects of the trade. But more importantly, in the majority of debates there has been limited focus on issues of gender disparity at the heart of the drugs crisis, something that has a startlingly large impact on the prevention of the illegal trade in narcotics.

The latest reports have estimated that in 2014 almost a quarter of a billion people – 247 million, to be precise – aged 15 to 64 used drugs at least once, resulting in 207,400 drug related deaths. This does not include those that transpired as a result of violence provoked by the illegal drugs trade. Whilst cannabis remains the most widely consumed drug, evidence of rising heroin use in North America suggests that the use of hard narcotics is becoming increasingly prevalent in the western world. In addition to this, the production and sale of opiates from South-West Asia continues, with two-thirds of Afghanistan remaining party to illicit opium cultivation.

As numerous studies compiled from UN research and data gathered by drug prevention authorities show, a number of different policy areas are implicated in the drugs problem, including criminal, environmental, and health policies. Nevertheless, until recently there has been a limited focus on addressing these underlying issues as opposed to removing drugs from the market in seizures. This is by no means an argument against authorities thus combating the issue as in the short term it succeeds in isolating drugs from consumers. However, it quite simply fails to address the causative long-term issues underlying the drugs trade. Yury Fedotov, Executive Director of the UNODC and Under-Secretary-General of the UN recognised this in stating that “the evidence is clear: illicit drug cultivation and manufacturing can be eradicated only if policies are aimed at the overall social, economic and environmental development of communities”. Policies must be implemented to ensure that individuals in developing countries no longer have an incentive to partake in an illegal line of work.

In order for officials to increase their focus on these areas they have had to examine the motivations for individuals to enter a life-threatening and illegal career. Whilst their reasons are varied, it can justifiably be said that they are principally economic and social. These are inextricably linked. In many underdeveloped communities there are few job opportunities and consequently the economic climate makes it a social norm for people to become involved in the drug business as a means to escape economic hardships and monotonous everyday routines. This brings us to the problem of gender disparity, as these problems are clearly intensified with respect to women. Whilst men continue to face more trials over drug-related offences, women face more drug-related arrests due to their lack of financial power. Women, in many cases, are expected to fulfil domestic stereotypes, namely by remaining at home and raising a family and so are faced with limited job opportunities as they are confined to a familial sphere. This is something which Joshua Marston’s 2004 film María Llena Eres de Gracia cleverly portrays.

In Marston’s film the patriarchal nature of the drugs trade is exposed from the perspective of someone living in a situation of economic hardship and limited social and economic opportunity. The protagonist, María, comes from a household devoid of men and works a minimum wage job on a flower plantation, trying to support her family in the absence of husbands or fathers to offer financial support. When María, on finding out that she is pregnant, decides she wants to go somewhere with opportunities for her and her baby, she gets a job working as a drug mule, one of many girls who are doing the same. In this realistic representation of the drugs trade, patriarchy becomes more and more evident as the unseen force behind narcotics. Men work behind the scenes controlling mules and taking a large cut of the money earned by the women, who are expected to do the dangerous, life-threatening work of trafficking the drugs.

The solution appears obvious: providing more economic support, particularly for women, is key to diminishing the allure of the financial promise in trafficking drugs. Nevertheless, this is easier said than done. Precedents have been set as countries with lower gender disparities are simultaneously more economically stable, meaning that there are therefore fewer incentives for people to enter illegal markets. Social as well as economic and punitive solutions are thus required to tackle the problems underlying the drugs trade. Instead of continued failures to address gender disparity, women must obtain equal rights, equal pay, and equal opportunities. Although this is by no means a total solution to the crisis of illegal narcotics, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime must prioritise gender equality in coming years.

– Esmée Charley