Aasia (not her real name) does not fit the image of a typical drug addict. She does not come from a disadvantaged or troubled background, she is not male, and she is not unemployed.
Twenty-one-year-old Aasia is a student at a prestigious private school and hopes to complete her education in the US. But both she, and her closest friends, know this dream may never come true.
Aasia is addicted to cocaine; a habit she picked up from older friends at parties. The drug, which costs Rs 10,000 (US $170) for a single line, is more than she can afford, but she says there are “always people at parties willing to offer some”.
Aasia is among the rising number of young women in the country addicted to drugs. Official figures suggest that just three percent of Pakistan’s four million drug addicts are women; however, many believe the actual figure is much higher.
“I have been hearing of more and more young women who are addicted to anxiety-relieving pills, to sedatives, to alcohol or to harder drugs,” says Fareeda Waheed, a student counsellor at a private college.
However, with few women coming forward to report their addiction to medical professionals, or to seek professional help, the actual figures are almost impossible to determine.
The casualties from drug abuse are also rising. A year ago the body of a young woman was found in her car in the upmarket residential area of Gulberg. Initially, it was feared she had been murdered. However, investigations revealed that the teenager had died of an overdose while snorting cocaine with friends; the panic-stricken youngsters had stuffed her body in her car and abandoned it close to her home.
I cannot tell my parents, because of the disgrace. They have no idea of what happens at the parties I attend.
There have been other anecdotal accounts of youngsters, including young women, falling ill after taking designer drugs, such as Ecstasy, and having to be rushed to hospitals.
“The fact is that drugs of all kinds are widely and easily available, and young people do use them,” said Saira Ansari, who looks after youth affairs at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
The social realities in Pakistan mean that women who are addicted to drugs have nowhere to turn to for help.
“I cannot tell my parents, because of the disgrace. They have no idea of what happens at the parties I attend,” says Aasia. She adds that, if she is able to go to the US at some point, she hopes to “approach a clinic confidentially and try to get clean”.
Some organisations to help drug users do exist, however, they treat mainly men. In fact, drug and alcohol abuse is a taboo subject when it comes to women. While drinking and smoking is widespread among men, the notion of the use of intoxicants by women is, due to social and religious reasons, highly unacceptable.
Women are also abusing over-the-counter drugs. According to the Karachi-based Pakistan Association for Mental Health (PAMH), as many as 44 percent of people in the country, the majority of them women, suffer clinical depression. Lacking support, these women turn to benzodiazepines such as ‘Xanax’ or ‘Lexotanil’, which are easily available at chemists.
Existing rules on the sale of drugs are widely ignored by pharmacists, and virtually any medicine can be bought without prescription.
This combination of factors, coupled with the new ‘designer drug’ culture that has been embraced by a still small but expanding percentage of youngsters, means there are more and more young women addicted to various substances.
As things stand at present, they face their addiction alone – with the problem rarely acknowledged in what is, in many ways, still a deeply traditional society.
[This article is part of a special IRIN series that looks at how conflict, poverty and social alienation are affecting the lives of children and teenagers. Read more: Youth in crisis: coming of age in the 21st century]