Abundant sunlight, spotless rooms with vibrant drawings on the walls, and children carelessly running around—the Afghan Relief Committee compound looked like a well-kept day-care centre. It was, however, a drug de-addiction facility for women and children in Herat, a province in north-western Afghanistan. The ARC is a non-governmental organisation that works with drug addicts in Afghanistan and runs de-addiction centres across the country.
In one corner of a playroom for children at the centre, a seven-year-old girl dressed in a black hijab and fawn kurta, sat quietly around a table with other children. The ARC staff told me she was addicted to heroin when she was brought to the facility. She picked up the habit after seeing her mother and 11-year-old sister consume the drug frequently. Both were with her at the centre.
Rising unemployment, decades of conflict and a thriving illicit narcotics industry have aggravated Afghanistan’s internal drug problem. According to the Afghan Ministry of Public Health, more than three million people in the country are addicted to drugs, including one million women and over 100,000 children.
In 2015, the Afghanistan National Drug Use Survey revealed startling details about the degree of drug use in the country. According to the report, drug use affected 31 percent of Afghan households, with a greater penetration among rural households compared to urban ones. The two drugs most frequently used were opioids and cannabis. According to the survey, nine percent of the children in Afghanistan, including one-year olds, tested positive for drugs. The report notes that some of these children may not have been consuming drugs intentionally and could have tested positive from environmental exposure or administration of the drug by an adult.
Despite the prevalent consumption, it is difficult to find official information about drug use in Afghanistan. In many areas of rural Afghanistan, community leaders are hesitant to reveal accurate information on drug consumption due to social stigmas. Identifying women drug users proves to be even more challenging because women mostly ingest drugs by swallowing them, rather than smoking openly. According to a 2005 survey by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the consumption patterns among women are less public than those of men. It noted, “Most pharmaceutical and opium use by women occurs in the home, and women typically eat opium rather than smoke it, which makes their drug use less visible to other members of the community.”