Fahima, an Afghan woman of 40, has had a tiring day. It is sunset and as it is her everyday routine at the end of a day of hard work, she gets up from the wooden frame of the rug she is weaving and goes to kitchen to prepare dinner for a husband who will be home soon. Her husband is a landless agricultural laborer whose seasonal work on other people's farmlands supports the meager income of the family, most of which comes from Fahima and her 3 daughters' weaving of the famed Afghan rug.
A severe backache has been with Fahima ever since the years of her youth. After dinner, Fahima and her husband huddle over the elixir which has kept their sad lives going for all these years – opium. Opium provides her with a temporary refuge from a pain that unsettles her every time she moves a limb. It is also a refuge from a hard life she has grappled with as an unforgiving part of her existence. Whenever her husband beats her up mercilessly as he does frequently, or every time she is down with an illness, she has no other succor to turn to but opium. The nearest functioning clinic would be tens of kilometers away beyond non-existent roads. Opium has become the relief and the medicine, as it is easy to find, cheap and in abundance.
Fahima's life is also the life of tens of thousands of other Afghan women. A large part of women rug weavers scattered throughout the cities, towns and villages of our country Afghanistan have traditionally used opium and heroin to ease their pain and alleviate illnesses. The rate of addiction to opium and heroin is staggering among this community. Much has been said, discussed and written about the prime position that our country occupies in producing the world's supply of opiates.
Our country has consistently been the largest producer of opiates in the world churning out more than 90% of the much-in-demand substance. The production of opiates decreased for a period of two years as a result of falling prices and further burdened by the outbreak of a disease that caused widespread crop failure. According to the Ministry of Counter Narcotics, now and with the prices of opium going back up, more land might be used for cultivation and the production is set to return to previous levels if the anti-poppy campaign is not intensified and farmers are not presented with viable alternatives.
There has been an explosion in the number of drug-addicts in the country in recent years. The human casualties of the sprawling drug production in our country are no longer confined to the streets of Tehran, Moscow or London. An increasing number of our own fellow Afghans are being hooked to opium, heroin and hashish. The social and economic consequences are, no doubt, devastating for a poor country such as ours with no assured means of extending aid to the victims whose numbers are skyrocketing. According to the Ministry of Counter Narcotics and the statistics provided by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the number of drug users in the country has reached an astounding 1.5 million persons.
This, as the statistics show, is a 50% increase over the past 5 years. This means the number of people in the country who use drugs has become double in a matter of 5 years. This figure corresponds to 5% of the population of our country. Considering that only a few countries cross the mark of 2%, our country Afghanistan stands as having one of the highest addiction rates in the world. According to UNODC, over the past 5 years, increase in the number of people addicted to heroin has been faster than that of opium. Addiction to heroin is much more dangerous than addiction to opium as de-addiction and detoxification in heroin-addicts is more difficult than those of opium and the health hazards associated with it are more serious. Addiction to heroin brings along with it waves of HIV infections and other blood-borne diseases.
The existence of 1.5 million drug-addicts in a country of barely 30 million is unacceptable. The country, already on the threshold of devastation as the legacy of three decades of civil war and highly dependent on foreign aid for financing even the most basic of its needs, does not have the resources to provide treatment and support to this growing pool of opiate-addicts. When the government of Afghanistan and its supporting partners still struggle to provide basic healthcare facilities to teeming masses of impoverished people, they will inevitably attach less importance to providing treatment and support to this growing opiate-addict population.
Consequently, addressing the rising plague of addiction is being neglected. Currently, for 1.5 million opiate-addicts, there are only around 50 rehabilitation centers in the country. This, at best, can provide support and treatment to only a tiny fraction of this population. The rest, lacking any support or treatment, would face no other than a slow death. Yes, this would be the fate of a sizable section of our population.
Another shocking finding of the UNODC is the high prevalence of addiction among children especially in North and South of the country. As high as 50% of addicted parents, many of them the likes of Fahima, give opium to their children. They give opium to their children as self-medication, pain-killer or to suppress many illnesses that the children are prone to. The children inevitably get hooked to the drug and this addiction, with devastating consequences, remains with them for their entire lives. The social upheaval that our country has gone through during the Taliban rule and after and also the persisting poverty, misery and unemployment have driven the current wave of increase in addiction.
On top of this, the refugees returning from Iran and Pakistan and the abundance of cheap narcotics on the streets of our cities and villages are other factors that have led to soaring rates of addiction. The situation is alarming. In the midst of a social and economic breakdown, the level of drug addiction in the country is sure to rise further if the government and its international supporters do not mobilize required resources to tackle the plague as addressing the issue is urgent. They say one stitch in time saves nine. We do not expect our under-resourced government, as it stands now, to save all the nine. Saving even one would be a golden achievement.