The Butterfly Community: A Movement of Women Who Use Drugs in Indonesia
Risma is familiar with the harms that women can face in Indonesian prisons; in 2006, she was sentenced to 18 months incarceration after being caught with a small quantity of drugs. Today, Risma is a health and human rights activist: “I was one of the beneficiaries of an NGO peer education programme in the women’s prison. I was released early for good behaviour and immediately joined the NGO as a volunteer.”
Working as a peer educator, Risma met women who had used drugs and faced debilitating stigma. Unwilling to accept this marginalisation for herself or her peers, Risma set up phone support and counselling to assist women in standing up to fight for their health and rights. “I realised there were many of us.”
The phone calls became meetings, and as the meetings slowly grew, they became known as the Women Butterfly Community. Many — particularly women who had spent time in prison—were ashamed and found it difficult to discuss their traumatic experiences in person. “We cried listening to each other’s stories.”
Risma explains: “I like the idea of a butterfly. When it is a caterpillar, it is not liked by anyone, so it keeps to itself. But once it becomes a butterfly, it goes out into the world and finds love and support.”
As a mother of three children, Risma is well aware of the many complex challenges facing women who use drugs. Despite the fact that the majority of people who use drugs in Indonesia are male, research indicates that women are incarcerated for non-violent drug offences more than for any other crime. Women who use drugs face stigma and discrimination on multiple levels, and often have reduced access to health and support services.
Additionally, the findings of a recent study, Women Speak Out, indicate that existing state programmes that seek to prevent HIV and violence are not targeting women who inject drugs, resulting in grave consequences for many women’s access to healthcare and overall well-being.
The Women Butterfly Community members understand the vulnerability of women who use drugs. “[They] need a safe environment where they can receive healthcare and drug treatment services without being separated from their children”, Risma explains.
With such factors in mind, the Women Butterfly Community has grown and transformed. It provides a supportive space, assists women with livelihood development, and empowers women to be advocates. In addition, the Women Butterfly Community connects women with legal and medical assistance; the group often intervenes at police stations or detention centres when a woman is arrested to ensure that she is safe, to provide information on her rights, and to advocate for access to anti-retroviral treatment or medication-assisted treatment.
In October 2016, Risma represented the Women Butterfly Community at a meeting of women who use drugs from 12 provinces across Indonesia. It was here that 20 women pledged to challenge the status quo, and committed to a unified vision of upholding human rights and obtaining justice for women affected by punitive drug policies. This commitment, dubbed the Jenggala Declaration after the name of the street that the meeting took place on, established a network of women within the Indonesian Drug Users Network (PKNI) and a new movement within the community of people who use drugs.
Together, Risma and the women of the Jenggala Declaration call for an end to stigma and discrimination, and for less punitive laws for minor and nonviolent drug infractions. Law reform and less punitive laws are key to reducing the incarceration of women and incarceration-related harm. Going forward, drug policy reform in Indonesia must prioritise the rights, health, and well-being of women.
*This piece was edited by Claudia Stoicescu