In the valley of despair, women look for a high

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Sameer Arshad Khatlani

August 23, 2009

The force of a midnight knock jolted Nazia Akhter (35) out of deep sleep on a chilly winter night in 1999. Before she could gather her wits, four masked gunmen had bundled her husband, Nazir Ahmed, into a car and taken him away. Ahmed was badly battered in captivity and seven days later when he was released, the family’s nightmare seemed to be over. But that was not to be. Armed forces picked Ahmed up to know his captors’ whereabouts. For next 10 days, Ahmed was thrashed so badly that he lost his memory. Nazia cried her eyes out through the 17-day ordeal and continued to weep buckets after the family faced penury, as Ahmed could no longer look after his once-thriving business. Over the months, Nazia became insomniac and restless. Somebody gave her a Diazepam tablet to relax. The family’s condition worsened so much so that the depressed mother of two started popping 15 tablets a day to relax. She was hooked on the sedative. This was when she was brought to a de-addiction centre in Srinagar.

Doctors say Nazia is not alone. Tens of thousands of Kashmiri women, who developed psychiatric disorders, fear psychosis, depression, stress-related disorders and suicidal tendencies during the two-decade-long turmoil, have taken to drugs (anti-depressants, painkillers and tranquillizers) which are easily available over the counter in absence of curbs in turmoil-hit Valley. Most are addicted to drugs ranging from medicinal opiates (opium-based drugs), cannabis and even heroin and cocaine.

Dr Mushtaq Margoob, a psychiatrist and author of the book Menace of Drug Abuse in Kashmir says an alarming 1.5 per cent women in Kashmir are addicted to opiates alone, which is the highest in the world. “Thousands of women are also addicted to contraband like heroin,’’ he says. He says four per cent of the women patients he sees daily are addicted to drugs to overcome depression. “The worst part is that it is a double-edged sword: They become addicts and the depression also lingers on.’’

Margoob has also come across patients using cocaine, costing an addict about Rs 2,000-2,500 per day. “Studies reveal that in comparison to 9.5 per cent use of opiate-based preparations during 1980 in Kashmir, it had increased to 73.1 per cent during 2002 and is worse now.’’

Women, as the worst victims of conflict, are more prone to its direct and indirect effects of death, destruction and unemployment. This pushes them into the trap of negative coping and drug abuse. “Women get hooked on drugs particularly opiates because such substances are easily available and used to relieve the symptoms,’’ says Margoob.

Dr Ghulam Nabi Wani, who has been running the de-addiction centre for 10 years, notes that almost every family has lost a member or somebody has been arrested or beaten up at some stage in last 20 years. “There is a pattern to drug abuse among women. Generally, women who have lost dear ones or have seen violent deaths become insomniac and in order to relax and sleep, they over the years became addicted to sedatives,’’ he says.

Poor implementation of licensing laws for sale of psychotropic drugs in the state compound the problem. Non-judicious use of drugs like Alprazolam, says Margoob, aggravates abuse potential of commonly used addictive drugs for anxiety and depression. “An assessment of the prescribing practice in anxiety disorder in Kashmir reveals a very disturbing trend that majority of such patients could possibly have been helped through counselling and psychotherapy rather than drugs,’’ says Margoob.

Another disturbing trend that has emerged is that elderly women, especially in rural areas, induce younger ones into smoking (hooka) to cope up with the bereavement. “With the easy availability of cannabis, these women often get hooked to them,’’ Margoob says.

The non-implementation of the Drug Act is also aggravating the problem. “If theAct is implemented, the addiction would come down by 50 per cent since the major reason for abuse is the easy availability of over the counter drugs like tranquillizers,’’ says Wani.

In fact, J&K has no drug policy since independence. “We will come up with one soon to check the menace of over the counter sale of psychotropic drugs,’’ said health minister Sham Lal Sharma. In a drug policy’s absence, anybody can buy medicine without a prescription.

A police officer said during the peak of militancy, they hardly had time to clamp down on drug trafficking and poppy cultivation. South Kashmir had become notorious for poppy cultivating till 2007 when police started a drive against it. Police have also engaged local clergy to support the campaign.

(First published in The Times of India)

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