Over the last decade, the gender gap has been narrowing among young school students who use drugs. Women only represent a fifth of clients in specialised drug treatment, but their problems are often more complex than those for men: They tend to progress faster towards addiction; a phenomenon known as “telescoping”. They go through more severe withdrawal symptoms and report higher levels of depression and anxiety.
Women often start using drugs through a drug-using male partner, and are more likely to share needles and other equipment with their partner. In general, women are likely to have fewer socio-economic resources – this is even more the case for women who use drugs. They experience more stigma, because they may be perceived as contravening their roles as mothers and caregivers.
Some groups of women have specific needs, such as pregnant and parenting women, women from ethnic minorities, women in prison and those involved in sex work. A specific drug related issue for women is intimate violence and drug-facilitated sexual assaults, which has serious psychological and social consequences. Treatment for women with drug abuse issues need to address these unique concerns. Preferred treatment surroundings need to be welcoming, non-judgemental, supportive and physically and emotionally safe.
It is also helpful for any person seeking drug or alcohol rehabilitation at an accredited facility to be fully involved in the planning and development of their treatment plan. The staff in the treatment environment need have appropriate attitudes, knowledge and skills; services need to be well coordinated and integrated to address different issues such as mental health, pregnancy and childcare. Monitoring and research needs to consider the gender dimension to optimise effective responses for women with drug-related problems.