Narcofeminism, a movement to join right now

A feminist, drug-fueled movement

Narcofeminism, a movement to join right now

When Olą Belyaeva was in her twenties, a doctor told her parents that he wanted to cut open her head and freeze part of the brain — the area responsible for satisfaction. Because the doctor blamed a defect of this area for Belyaeva repeatedly doing something that is severely condemned in her home Ukraine: Taking drugs.

In the meantime, Olą Belyaeva is 46 years old and her brain is unharmed. She also no longer lives in Ukraine but Lithuania. Belyaeva works in an NGO that is committed to harm reduction, i.e. minimizing the harm caused by drug use. In 2001 she initiated a needle exchange program in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro, and in 2010 she has been campaigning for substitutes in Ukraine to be able to take their tablets from the doctor. She tells her story via video call.

The mobile phone display shows a woman with blonde short hair, elegantly traced eyebrows, and black eyeliner. She wears a grey hoodie and could also be the singer of an indie band. “There is a big difference between men and women when it comes to drug use,” she says, “Addiction is still reasonably accepted among men. But not at all with women. For them, the rule is: Either you’re sober, or you go to jail or a psychiatric hospital.”

Olą Belyaeva no longer wants to accept this. Together with other women, such as the human rights activist Larisa Solovyeva, who fled Russia, she has founded a movement to address the concerns of female drug users: “the narcofeminist movement”.

The history of this movement will begin in September 2016, when human rights activists will speak about problems related to drug use at an international conference on feminism in Brazil. The conference has an intersectional focus, which means that it addresses the connections between different forms of discrimination. The theory behind the term “intersectionality”: a person can be discriminated against based on various factors. For example, a black woman experiences racism and sexism equally. It’s like a street intersection — English “intersection” — where cars from different directions collide. Since in most countries drug consumption is subject to stigma, cars also race from this street towards the intersection.

This may sound dull and theoretical, but it has real consequences. Where there is discrimination, there is power. And where people are discriminated against several times, power is abused against them several times. In extreme cases, situations arise in which women are forced to have abortions. Or such situations where women are forced to have sex for drugs. Or those where the police decide whether women can keep their children — and not a competent authority.

“Women have no voice in many countries,” says Larisa Solovyeva. She has been supporting women in court proceedings in Russia for many years. “The stigma and repression then add to the silence of women.” That’s why the narcofeminists’ main concern is to get women to talk.

That sounds like a goal that’s not too difficult to achieve. But even in Germany, this is not easy for many people. After all, drug use and above all addiction is shameful. For many people, talking about it means admitting personal failure and, not least, criminal offenses. Because in this country, too, those who possess drugs are punished. And here too there is the stigma. Nevertheless, drug addiction is more and more understood as a disease. Opioid addicts can, for example, receive substitution treatment. And judges can decide whether to let drug-addicted defendants undergo therapy instead of sending them to prison. That doesn’t exist in most Eastern European countries. Cold rehab and prison are the norms there.

One can therefore only guess at how high the hurdle is in countries like Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan to engage in narcofeminist activities. Belyaeva says that she once created a space for female drug users, but that the women themselves were unable to talk in this setting. “They just couldn’t,” she says. They were too trimmed to remain invisible — to survive.

At the moment, the narco-feminist movement is still in its infancy. The women are mainly working on building networks, exchanging information, and information about drug policy and feminism.

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