A discussion with Eka Iakobishvili from Harm Reduction International

Eka Iakobishvili is a Human Rights Analyst at Harm Reduction International. Her work focuses  on harm reduction and human rights in prisons and places of detention, and related criminal justice issues in European and Central Asian countries.

 It was a nice Wednesday morning when I met Eka outside Lambeth North Station. The weather was pleasant and quite shinny and I had an excitement to talk with her and ask her all the things I wanted to. So we picked a quiet and cosy Italian coffee shop and started to know each other. She was very kind, warm and willing to talk about all the issues I wanted to ask her without reservations. We ordered coffees and snacks, and were ready to begin a very interesting discussion.

Doing a face-to-face interview with such an interesting person as Eka Iakobishvili, was something I wanted to do for a while. Especially when the interests of two people coincide what you are left with is a stimulating, informative and passionate discussion. In our case, our common passion was women’s issues.

The main focus of the discussion would be the recently released report of Harm Reduction International concerning the rates of the female incarceration in Europe. The report was also my starting point for discussing many other relevant issues, including gender inequality, drug policy framework and criminal justice.

The alarming increase of female numbers in European prisons

According to the HRI report, the numbers of incarcerated women across Europe are extremely high. The majority of women are found behind bars because of drug related offences. But why? Why are women the target of arrest and detention and what lies behind this massive incarceration? Eka could not give a general answer applying to all countries. As she said, each country encompasses different dynamics and different drug policies. Each country is defined by a different historical and social context, therefore each one should be treated differently. She gave the examples of transit countries, such as Tajikistan, mentioned Ukraine which has an extremely strict drug policy framework and referred to Portugal, for which she explained that many foreign women are involved in drug trafficking.  While the rate of incarcerated women in Portugal seemed rather high in the report findings (47%) Eka stressed that in reality it was decreased from 70% to 47%!

The offences for which women are mostly sentenced in Europe seem to be related to non-violent drug offences, but Eka noted that the thresholds for possession vary from country to country, again according to tradition, age groups, and country-specific context.

The idea of the country-specific context led to my next question which was about the role of women in drug trafficking. To be more precise, I was curious to know about the hierarchy in the role of women in the drug trade. ‘In different constructions, women occupy different roles in the drug trade’, said Eka, as she referred to women from extremely poor backgrounds, who resort to drugs in order to help their families survive. The next bit of her answer got more shocking: ‘In Portugal, there are levels of generations of women in prison: grandmothers, daughters, grandchildren… You see three generations being in prison for the same type of crime’. It is scary, indeed. Other countries such as Georgia incarcerate women only for personal use: ‘[in Georgia} I have cases where women serve sentences for 17 years, just for drug use and I think it is a very serious issue. In Georgia, there are no lower thresholds for personal use for certain drugs such as heroin… It is not only about criminal justice, or drug policies or human rights. I think the issue is much broader.’

Female Incarceration and Gender Inequality

As we were going through the issue there was one word-concept that was spinning around in my head: gender inequality. In my mind I had a strong feeling that there was an inner connection between the massive imprisonment of women for drug offences and the reality of male social and cultural shaping which leads in a certain inequality between the sexes. And Eka somehow confirmed my thoughts: ‘Women go to prison for petty crimes for which men would never go. They get punished much harsher than men in a way that in addition to the sentence they receive they are also often subject to ban of parental rights, taking their kids away, social stigma and discrimination… Women are the most stigmatized individuals’.

In regards to the links between sexual violence and drug use she noted:  ‘we have got links between sexual violence and drug use, we also have strong links between domestic violence and drug use (in which women tend to represent high portions)’. Since women are much more stigmatized than men drug users, for them drug use is often considered as a big taboo-subject.  ‘Everytime something happens, women don’t go to the police…They are afraid of the violence..If they go to the police and report then they’ll go home and be beaten up. If they are drug dependent they would never go to the police’.

Fear is always present for women, because, I would add, they are most of the times under the influence of male drug using partners, male police officers,  male figures of authority. And if you add the punitive and intolerant general approach of the police towards drug users then you have the worst combination: gender inequality and a massive inhumane approach to drug users. In the case of women, as Eka said, there is an additional burden: women are always judged on moralistic and less tolerating grounds than men.

So, how can we enforce equal treatment for men and women drug users? How should equality be conceived in policy terms? Eka had a clear vision of equality which appeared in her answer when I asked her whether current drug policies in Europe tend to overlook vulnerabilities associated with gender: ‘Equality does not mean equal treatment. Equality means responding to different needs of individuals equally.  Every individual deserves treatment as she or he requires. We have specific treatment for women, children and elderly people, because they have specific needs’. So, in a sense equality should be tailored to individuals’ needs and this answer looks more than fair to me.

 Drug Policy and Sentencing Reform

The report made obvious the fact that the criminal justice system and the drug policies that many European countries endorse are inefficient and destructive for their citizens and unjustifiably condemn drug users and especially women to unbearable lives in prison. Eka made the point of a ‘huge need for a general criminal justice and drug policy reform. We should, of course, always take into consideration the different dimensions of drug policies in each country and how they affect women’s rights in a specific context’. She explained that possession for personal use has been a major driver for women’s incarceration in many countries: ‘Issues have to be looked in a more comprehensive manner and the first and immediate step should generally be the decriminalisation of use and possession for personal use’.

I tend to be very sceptical towards the idea of having prison as a measure of punishment for drug-related offences. So my next question was related to the necessity, use and function of prison for certain drug offences. Eka made clear that society needs prison for certain purposes and for the punishment of crime, but she also made clear that ‘drug use cannot be a crime, because it is a mental state, it is more of a health issue. You have to detach criminal justice system from health. You cannot expand criminal justice into health. As a government, you have to understand that your criminal justice system should not be expanded into education, social and healthcare system’. I could not agree more.

 As for the role of the criminal justice system and its response towards women drug users, she stressed the importance of the individual factor: ‘In criminal justice system, you have the principle of individualization: you investigate individuals in individual circumstances, individual backgrounds, family issues and unique conditions applying to each case. You take into account the law and the individual circumstances. .. That is why we need a specific treatment for women, because in a way it is an individual issue, just as for juveniles and elderly persons. Even the punishment for murder differs from country to country. Sometimes there is a need for certain countries to pass special laws for certain individuals’.
I was wondering whether Eka had in her mind an ideal drug policy framework , so I just asked her and her answer was that there is no ideal framework because, most importantly, ‘every jurisdiction is very different, in every country you encounter different practical issues..’. What she defended was a general ‘decriminalization and human rights framework, a human rights approach’.

To end the interview with an interesting question, I thought about asking her about the connection between the War on Drugs and the massive female incarceration. Was it true that behind the War of Drugs, a strategy that many countries have implemented for years now, there was another motivation and that this strategy mostly affected  particular groups of people? Surely, as Eka highlighted the War on Drugs is placing a higher burden on women in the sense that women get punished more than men due to the fact that they are women. ‘They might ‘pay a higher price’ in some societies simply because they are mothers (and parental rights for mothers are instantly taken away once arrested). In a number of countries war on drugs is called war on women due to its high impact on women –who might happen to be poor and foreign at the same time- and families. .. Gender is totally neglected in the international, male-dominated drug policies. Men often do not understand the issue. Women need to speak out more.’

I think this phrase is ideal for closing this piece: Yes, women need to speak out more. The world, the policies, the circumstances under which we live everyday might be male-dominated, but the way we, as women, handle these circumstances, respond to them, fight for recognition and for our voices to be heard can be female-dominated. The time has come for women to speak out, raise their voices and defeat fear, their worst enemy.

You can read the report here.