Page last updated at 06:17 GMT, Monday, 5 January 2009

More Asian women 'use hard drugs'

By Poonam Taneja
BBC Asian Network

Drugs charity Nafas says the Asian community is reluctant to speak out

A growing number of Asian women are using Class A drugs, according to leading Asian drugs charity Nafas.

Ten years ago drug misuse amongst British Asian women was unheard of.

Now, Nafas says it is treating 20 to 25 women for heroin addiction a year in east London alone - a figure it believes is just the tip of the iceberg.

Zarina (not her real name) is one of them. The 25-year-old is fashionably dressed but painfully thin with eyes like saucers in her tiny face.

I met her near her home in Bethnal Green, east London.

She is polite and articulate, although for the first 10 minutes of our interview finds it hard to sit still, nervously fidgeting with her hands.

She was a 14-year-old schoolgirl when she first started using heroin.

"From the first time I tried heroin, I liked it," she said.

"Ever since then I've been an addict. The guy I was with, he knew all the local dealers. Where my school was, there were so many dealers hanging around.

The stigma against substance misuse seems to be almost like the last taboo
Baroness Pola Uddin

"I didn't know them, but I got to know them, because my boyfriend used to take me with him whenever he'd go to score."

Since then she has developed an addiction to heroin and crack cocaine that costs her around 2,000 a week.

Like many drug addicts she finances her habit through crime.

She said: "I just go out shoplifting with my boyfriend and his crowd. I used to not be able to shoplift, but I'd be on the lookout and get a share of the money for drugs."

Family honour

The manager of the Nafas drugs project in east London, Tohel Ahmed, said Asian girls hooked on drugs are particularly vulnerable.

He said: "We think this is the next big problem for the Asian community, these females. Many of them start young, and we've had 14, 15-year-olds.

Drug project Nafas
Girls as young as 14 are being helped by the Asian drugs charity

"Often they start using because of their boyfriends. Some of them get tricked into using drugs and many of them are driven into prostitution to feed their habit."

There are no official figures but drug experts agree it is a growing problem, not just in London but in places with large Asian communities like Birmingham, Bradford and Lancashire.

But because of a sense of family honour or concern for public image, the problem remains hidden.

Labour Peer, Baroness Pola Uddin, believes this prevents young Asian girls from seeking the help they need.

Community reluctance

She said: "The stigma against substance misuse seems to be almost like the last taboo. We've got to take a very serious look and see what the level of problems is and where these girls are going for support."

It is a view shared by Zarina. She thinks Asian girls are too scared to come forward for fear of violent reprisals.

One of my mates has a kid that's 13 years old yet she's in and out of prison, it's mad. I don't ever want to be in that situation
Heroin addict 'Zarina'

"Some of my friends who use drugs can't walk down the street, in case their brothers see them. Some of them have been battered by their families for taking drugs," she said.

Mr Ahmed believes the situation is similar to that of Asian men 10 years ago, where the community was aware of the problem but reluctant to speak out or seek treatment for friends or family.

Meanwhile, after a three-week stay in prison, Zarina is trying to get clean. She wants her future to be heroin-free.

She said: "I've got a lot of Asian friends, four or five of them. Three of them are working girls and they inject heroin very heavily.

"They've even got kids. One of my mates has a kid that's 13 years old yet she's in and out of prison, it's mad. I don't ever want to be in that situation, with a child and in and out of prison. It's not me".

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