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September 23, 2018

Drug addiction drives up cancer, Aids among women at the Coast

Faiza Jalal, a recovering female drug addict during an interview at Uwanja wa Mbuzi Mombasa. Photo/CHARLES MGHENYI
Faiza Jalal, a recovering female drug addict during an interview at Uwanja wa Mbuzi Mombasa. Photo/CHARLES MGHENYI

We met her at Kongowea Uwanja wa Mbuzi, a ‘Class B’ stadium that was built by Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho to keep youths busy and nurture their talents.

Faiza Jalal looks weary and frail. She says she is 28 years old, but you would not think it. Eight years of injecting drugs have withered her once stunning looks.

Her words are incoherent and she does not remember the exact day she started abusing drugs or the year she was married.

“There is nothing I haven’t gone through. I have been sexually abused, I had a miscarriage when I was six months pregnant, I once broke my leg, I lost my marriage, I use to sleep in the streets of Mombasa,” she says.

Faiza is among recovering women addicts at the Coast. Mombasa has a high number of drug addicts, the majority being injecting drug users (IDUs), who use heroin among other hard drugs.

As other regions struggle with alcohol and bhang smoking, the six coastal counties are battling against hard drugs that have reduced about 150,000 young people into zombies.

The scourge has befallen thousands of women, who are at high risk of not only contracting HIV-Aids, but also cervical and breast cancers besides being more exposed to all form of sexual, physical and emotional violence.

With a hoarse voice and a little stammer, Faiza wrings her hands and starts to narrate how she became an addict.

“I was married to this young man in Majengo, Mombasa town. Life was good then. It was about one and half years into the marriage when I started noticing some strange behaviours. He would come home and after a few minutes doze off and sleep for many hours,” she says.

She asked her husband about it and he promised to show her what he was taking.

“One day he came home with heroin, I was washing the dishes. He called me into [our] room and locked [the door] behind us. He then took out a syringe and needle and injected the drug into one of my veins. At first I was afraid, but I did not resist. That is how it all started,” she narrates.

Her husband, whom she calls Swaleh, would also inject himself and they would fall into a deep sleep.

After sometime, Faiza developed a phobia for water (this is common amongst injecting drug users, they do not like to take a shower).

“My mother-in-law would become very furious because I could no longer wash utensils or touch water. I had to wait until Swaleh came back with a new dose, then I will become active again,” she says.

Her mother-in-law then started accusing Faiza of leading her son astray. She blamed her for introducing her son into hard drugs.

“They took their son to rehabilitation and I was left alone in the streets. By that time we had become totally addicted and I could not do anything,” she says.

One day in 2014 police raided the burnt Mwembe Tayari market, a drug den that Faiza was visiting for the first time.

“I jumped from the second or third floor of that building and broke my leg. My female friend broke her backbone. She was taken to Coast General Hospital but later on succumbed to the injuries,” Faiza says, adding that she was lucky to survive.

As she was still nursing her broken leg, Swaleh broke into a neigbhour's house and stole some property. Police were called in but he evaded them and Faiza was arrested.

She was taken to Central police station, but a friend bailed her out.

“That was my last day in marriage. I never went back and retreated into the streets. I would sleep anywhere and do anything it took, including selling my body, to get drugs,” she says.

However three years ago Faiza approached Reachout Centre Trust, an NGO that helps drug addicts, and she was admitted into the Methadone Programme.

In the programme recovering addicts are given methadone as an alternative to the hard drugs as part of their rehabilitation.

Methadone gives the same feeling as heroine but is not addictive; it helps addicts cope with the withdrawal symptoms. The national government, through the Ministry of Health, has recommended it to the addicts.

Faiza Hamid is an officer at Reachout Centre Trust with 10 years' experience in dealing with drug addicts.

Hamid says more focus has always been directed towards men addicts and not women, despite the fact that the women require more attention.

“Women have a lot of challenges. Unlike men, who when they need to take drugs but do not have money might steal, women have to sell their bodies...these women have to sleep with about 10 men a day in order to just raise Sh300 for the drugs,” she says.

At Reachhout, Hamid says, they started the Sister-to-Sister programme, which majorly focuses on women addicts.

Apart from helping them recover, we have two activities each month in which we bring women addicts together and try to sensitise them on cervical and breast cancer as well as HIV-Aids, she says.

“These women are basically commercial sex workers because unless they exchange their bodies for money and drugs, they will not get any. Therefore, we have to sensitise them on the importance of taking medical tests...if we find anyone has contracted a disease, we refer them to a government hospital for specialised treatment,” Hamid says.

Taib Abdulrahaman, the executive director of Reachout Centre Trust, says there are few rehabilitation facilities for women.

Only Mewa Hospital in Mombasa and the Omari Project in Malindi have rehabilitation programmes for women.

“There is need to have more of these rehabilitation centres,” Abdulrahaman says.

He says few addicts go to the clinic for the Methadone Programme so they have been forced to take the service to the drug dens.

“We [however] have a challenge from the community, who are now opposing this, saying we have brought addicts closer to their homes. But we want to continue sensitising them on this project,” he says.

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