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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 August 2007, 15:26 GMT 16:26 UK
Offering hope to Afghan addicts
By Bilal Sarwary
BBC News, Kabul

Anti drugs poster at the Sanga Amaj Drug Treatment Centre for women
The anti-drugs message at the clinic is kept clear and simple

On a hot summer's night in Pakistan, 33-year-old Rahima was having a fight with her husband in a refugee camp. It came to an end when Rahima's husband forced her to consume a small opium capsule.

"This is how I became an opium addict," says Rahima. "He gave it to me thinking this might end the night's fight.

"However, I became addicted to it by mistake - a mistake that cost me dearly because my baby died four days after birth."

In the years to come, Rahima's life only continued to get worse.

"No one respected me. When I went to weddings and family events, people made fun of me and called me 'the addict'," she says.

After the fall of the Taleban, Rahima returned to Afghanistan and heard talk of the Sanga Amaj Drug Treatment Centre for women in western Kabul, funded by the US state department through the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics.

Dr Toorpaikay Zazi
There are a lot of cases of addiction, but most addicts don't make it to clinics and centres
Dr Toorpaikay Zazi

The first of its kind in the area, the Sanga Amaj centre is named after a female journalist who was mysteriously shot dead in Kabul a few months ago.

After only a month's treatment at Sanga Amaj, Rahima was back to normal. She now works at the centre as a janitor, earning $100 a month.

Many women in the community have sought treatment at the Sanga Amaj centre.

"They are admitted here for a month - we look after them like a family; they are eating and living here, and medication is free," says Dr Toorpaikay Zazi, the head of the centre.

"However, we have been getting too many patients and we don't have enough space to admit all of them."

According to Dr Zazi, most of these women are pressurised into addiction by their husbands.

"They do it because their husbands urge them to do it. Others do it because they can't afford medicine, and there simply aren't any clinics in the rural areas," she says.

'Control'

Thirty-year-old Basmina, another patient at the centre, became drawn to opium after observing her cousin's drug use.

Fearing retribution from her husband, Basmina has been forced to lie to her family, stating merely that she is sick and undergoing normal treatment in a Kabul hospital.

Ward at the Sanga Amaj Drug Treatment Centre for women
Sanga Amaj is one of the few women-only clinics in the country

"My cousin was consuming opium - her husband was beating her all the time," she says. "One day I asked her to let me try some, and since then I have been addicted. Since I have been admitted here, I have started to regain control of my life."

Rahima is one of hundreds of Afghan women who are addicted to opium, heroin and hashish, says Mohammad Nasib, managing director of the Welfare Association for the Development of Afghanistan (Wadan).

The institution runs similar treatment centres in the Afghan provinces of Ghazni, Paktia, Helmand and Nimruz.

"It's a big social stigma to be a drug addict. Most of our programmes for female addicts are community-based - we treat them mostly in their houses."

In Helmand province alone, Wadan's drug treatment centre has 900 patients on the waiting list, some of them female.

"We treat female addicts only at community-based and home-based settings, emphatically not at residential facilities," says Mr Nasib.

A recent survey conducted by the Sanga Amaj centre suggests there are hundreds of drug addicts in the local community.

"There are a lot of cases of addiction, but most addicts don't make it to clinics and centres," says Dr Zazi.

This year Afghanistan's poppy production has hit record highs once again, a disheartening situation that is predicted to worsen.

Anti drugs poster at the Sanga Amaj Drug Treatment Centre for women
'Drugs kill' is the simple but effective message

Afghan poppy production accounts for more than 90% of the world's opium trade, and the nation has continued to accumulate addicts within its own borders - it is estimated that there are 50,000 cases of addiction in Kabul alone.

Most of these addicts are believed to be refugees who have returned to Afghanistan from Iran and Pakistan in recent years.

A recent Ministry of Counter Narcotics and UN Office of Drugs and Crime joint survey said there were 920,000 addicts in Afghanistan, an estimated 120,000 of whom are women.

Gone are the days when Afghan opium was only hitting the streets of the UK and mainland Europe - it is now clear that it is also having a devastating effect on the nation's own citizens.

Just before I leave the centre, Rahima has a final message for Afghan women.

"Being a drug addict is being away from humanity - you don't have the respect of anyone - you become useless.

"Being a drug addict was my past, not my future," says Rahima with a smiling face, busy cleaning dishes in the kitchen.




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