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Becoming a Woman Who Uses Crack: Breaking Silences in Brazil

TalkingDrugs has partnered with Luana Malheiro, anthropologist and drugs researcher from Brazil, to bring to life her insights from her extensive research with women who are homeless and use crack in Brazil. This work at the margins of society is incredibly important to highlight, particularly because it was built alongside this drug-using population.

This is the first part of Malheiro’s reflections on her work, summarising the book's thesis and how she developed the research with her fellow partner researchers. The second part can be read here.

From around 2000 onwards, the Brazilian drug policy debate was marked by the dominant media forces announcing the arrival of crack, the great evil. The social and mediatised construction of the moral panic around crack consumption was part of a wider global effort to intensify the public persecution of people who used crack in open-air spaces in large cities and urban centres. While there was an ongoing cultural and political shift throughout Latin America and the Caribbean around the acceptance of cannabis use, the prohibitionist model of the drug war refocused on a new enemy in our region: people who smoked cocaine, especially those that were black or poor.

The discourse used to construct the image of crack consumers actively demonised these populations: the crackheads, zombies, soulless bodies, or crack babies. All reinforce discriminatory and stigmatising practices in society. In public policies, this discourse created a repressive and prohibitionist approach to drugs, cranking up health-based control practices, and impacting people’s right of access to the city.

A set of new policies to control bodies began to emerge in Brazil, with the supposed purpose of “containing a crack epidemic” that was never corroborated by any epidemiological evidence. The Brazilian government began a series of initiatives, named “Crack: you can beat it” in order to quell public and media uproar around the drug. These policies obviously didn’t target everyone that consumed crack: the specific issue was with that group of people that lived on the street, or those part of poorer communities that tend to use crack in open public spaces.

The book “Becoming a woman who uses crack: culture and drug policy”, published in 2020 by Editora Telha, narrates this complex plot, drawing on voices that are never really taken seriously in any national and regional debates: the women living on the street and who use crack. The book brings in historical facts, such as an analysis of the global and local political context that situates people who use crack as historical targets of a prohibitionist pursuit; it uncovers discussions of local and global issues within stories told by these women, who are research partners with the author.

“Partner” is a concept used by women to refer to trustworthy individuals that were present for important moments of their lives. The book’s purpose was to emulate this trustworthiness, providing a space to understand the stories of those most affected by prohibition, racism, sexism and economic inequality, particularly as they lived through the moral panic around crack.

The book is a web of stories that begins with the personal stories of the author. It describes experiences she has lived through as a woman, who uses drugs, centring her research around those identities. In a prohibitionist, colonialist and sexist world, silencing women who use drugs is a technique of power maintenance that removes the chance for them to participate in the critique of the drug policies that impact them. The experience of drug use is also a knowledge producing force, developing a culture of use that brings together political and social understandings of drugs as well as personal experiences in an iterative process developed overtime. The importance of breaking pacts of silence in partnership with the studied population, and establishing systems to exchange knowledge, is centrally important to the book.

Becoming a woman who uses crack

“I was being threatened by my husband. I would stay with him in the Praça dos Correios ([public plaza], him, his daughter and myself. We were living on the street and I was scared of him, so I went to the delegacia de mulher [police stations specialising in crimes against women]. I didn’t know how it worked, so on the same day he threatened me, I got some money together, left the girl with a comrade, and went to make a complaint. I was treated terribly. I wanted to speak about how I was threatened, and the officer was asking me if I smoked crack, if I had children, that I shouldn’t walk around in bad areas. I asked her almost crying, I needed to get off the streets and go somewhere. She told me there’s a shelter, but I couldn’t go there as I was homeless and used drugs, which wasn’t allowed in there. I left the station filled with hate, wasn’t she a woman? Am I less than a woman? Am I not a woman?” – Janete


The book was the culmination of many years of socialisation between the author and homeless women who use crack in an urban neighbourhood in the city of Salvador na Bahia. The research process involved several interviews, visiting open drug use scenes, health services, justice buildings from 2015 to 2016. The author worked with a collective of 20 women, conducting individual as well as group interviews to understand the path that led women to the use and the problematic use of crack. How did women become crack consumers? That was one of the questions that guided the reconstructions of these women’s lives, through which these interviews and stories shun a light on the process.

The book’s title alludes to a classic by Simone de Beauvoir, which questions the ideal of the woman that represents today’s white feminism, and whose voice and narrative drove the formulation of contemporary public policies for women. Black feminism, appearing in the international context to challenge Beauvoir’s western construct, created the foundations to think of the struggle of black, indigenous and non-white women.

This is how Janete’s quote fits into the wider story. A woman who lives on the street and uses crack is not expected, nor desired, to participate in female policymaking; she is left to fend for herself.

The path that leads women onto more problematic use of crack is one characterised by traumatic experiences. The stories told by my research partners reveal that when you’re ambling towards death, the use of crack is an expression of life, keeping you alive while coping with traumas. The search for crack was a way to obliterate a profound memory of pain.

Institutional, racial, and gender-based violence were commonplace in the lives of these women. In the 20 women I worked with, 18 were victims of sexual abuse by close family members; this was often the main reason why many of them were living on the streets. Once homeless, there is an often painful learning process they all go through: you must learn to protect yourself from the various types of violence that surround you.

Stories of rape, by police officers, private security forces, drug traffickers and other people using drugs on the street reveal a nefarious reality of what can only be described as a rape epidemic, that further deteriorates the psychological wellbeing of these women. Other situations that led to compulsive crack use were: physical violence; the removal or kidnapping of new-borns; or the state-sanctioned murder of children, usually by the police. Crack became their support, to bear all the adversities faced in their lives.

“They just need to know you use crack and live on the street for them to take your child. There’s so many of these cases. Women go to the maternity ward to have their kids and then the workers take them ai. They don’t ant to support us, or ask if you want to keep them. After they took my first child I went mad. When I was pregnant, I started taking better care of myself, and I really wanted to leave this life… But when they took my son, I really hit the bottom. I didn’t want to stay sane for even one minute, and have to remember that they took him from me. You just have to speak to the other women on the street and you’ll hear the same story. Who can bear this pain without breaking? Without really throwing yourself into crack?”

In the book, there’s a reflection on femicides done in the name of the drug war. The way in which women both physically and subjectively die, are diverse: the current War on Drugs manifests itself a quietening force, silencing the sounds of black, indigenous, non-white, trans, immigrant women who use drugs.

“My son hadn’t even turned 20. He was my biggest partner in life, it was just me and him. Until he got involved with the people around here; we didn’t have any money, so he started selling crack to get a better life. We managed to get a simple room for us, and our life was turning around. The image of his body laid there on the floor, covered in blood, is seared in my head. He was shot in the back. How is that fair? He should have been arrested, and then he’d be out. That image destroys me. I just stop thinking about it when I smoke crack, it brings me a bit of relief. It’s been five years but still feels like yesterday, I still cry everyday. They killed me when they killed my son. What keeps me alive is the [crack] rock. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop smoking it. I just think of avenging his death…”

The book “Becoming a woman who uses crack: culture and drug policy”, is available in Editora Telha’s website.

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