Amritsar, Punjab: In Amritsar’s Ajnala town, close to Pakistan’s border, 23-year-old Pooja (name changed), has been coping with her husband Parambir’s drug addiction for over five years.
“After every treatment session, he promises to quit. But a few days after we are back home, he is back to the habit,” she says, despair and worry written all over her face.
Parambir was hooked to heroin, a habit he shed after he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. He underwent counseling and was clean for a few months. But soon he started taking synthetic drugs which are easily available at every chemist’s shop and are even delivered at home.
He has three older brothers, all of whom are addicts too. For the longest time, their parents had no idea until valuables started disappearing from the house and the youngsters ran through the bank savings to support the habit.
“People used to tell me how lucky I was to have four sons to take over my farm and support me in my old age,” says Gurdeep Singh, Parambir’s father, who is a former sarpanch. “Look at me today. I am over 70 and here I am tilling the fields again because I can no longer trust and depend on my sons.”
Pooja no longer believes Parambir’s promises to shed the habit. Worried that her husband’s illness might affect her children, she plans to leave them with her parents next year.
“My parents tell me I should leave him and have offered to support me,” she says. “I have done a course in nursing and I can work too. But I am torn because I have a sense of duty and loyalty towards my husband and in-laws.”
Pooja is luckier than many other women in her situation. She has the support of her in-laws and is financially well off. In most cases, wives of addicts find themselves completely isolated.
There is a huge stigma attached to drug addiction and this means wives and other family members avoid seeking counseling or any medical support. This marginalizes them, putting them at a huge health risk.
“The cultural context is such that the women are blamed if the men are addicts. In addition, they are fairly isolated so they are not able to come forward and say that they are suffering,” says Dr Varada Madge, Regional Manager, Mamta-HIMC. The NGO runs a project in Punjab for the prevention and early management of Viral Hepatitis B and C among injecting drug users.
A welcome intervention in this direction is the Mukhyamantri Hepatitis C Relief Fund program started by the Punjab government. Under this initiative, those infected can free treatment for Hepatitis C.
“The problem is getting women to link to those treatment services,” says Madge. “Since most women don’t speak up and come forward, they are not aware that there are such services.”
Wives of addicts feel the burden on many levels. They are trapped between the stigma and patriarchal attitudes that act as a barrier to them working to support their families.
For four years, Meena found herself completely alone as she struggled to cope with her husband’s addiction. A daily wage labourer, he would spend most of his earnings on heroin.
She had little money for food and had to take her kids out of school. Her in-laws did nothing to help her, not even when her husband would beat her for defying his wishes to take up work as a domestic help.
“We live in a joint family and everyone could see how my children and I were suffering but no one helped,” says Seema. “I used to feel so alone, ashamed and a great deal of stress.”
Her husband finally stopped injecting after he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C virus. He has been clean for over a year now but Seema says she can never completely shake off her sense of insecurity.
“The drugs are so easily available in the village. His friends are still addicted so I am scared that he will go back to using,” she says.
Stories of Pooja and Seema point to an urgent need to look at the drug crisis in Punjab. Worldwide, the burden on wives of substance abusers is well documented. According to a United Nations study, such wives come under huge pressure given the lack of social support and lack of support from family.
“We have to think beyond just giving one-time services in such cases,” says Dr Sunil Mehra, Executive Director, Mamta-HIMC.
“We need to put a policy environment. Culture does not say that you don’t have to give men and women knowledge and information to protect them from unhealthy practices. So the emphasis has to be on the policy.”
According to the Punjab Opiod Dependence Survey commissioned by the state government in 2015, there is at least one addict per family across rural Punjab. On the ground, however, the reality is hard. The figures don’t reflect the trauma that the families go through and how the widespread addiction continues to destroy the lives of women.