India’s female addicts battle gender bias, social stigma, poverty

he names of patients have been changed to protect their identities.

Nandita* doesn’t remember when she first used Methylphenidate, a central nervous system stimulant.

She is now 26 years old and recovering, but was addicted to two substances, not including, she says, alcohol and cigarettes.

“The first few times are a blur, it seems like they were many years ago,” she tells

She sought medical help two years ago. Her parents run a real estate company in Bangalore and live in an expensive neighbourhood.

Though several young women like Nandita check in to rehabilitation centres, addiction among Indian women is barely researched and analysed.

Defined as a disease by medical associations across the world and the World Health Organization, addiction can be caused by a combination of behavioural, environmental and biological factors.

Indian female addicts struggle specifically because of social and family pressure.

In short, the stigma is much higher, according to Dr Reni Thomas at St Johns Hospital in Bangalore, and so women are less likely to break out of the cycle, compared with men.

The Bangalore-based doctors at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences (Nimhans) report an increasing number of young women seeking treatment.

The rehabilitation centre to treat addicts is more than 25 years old, but in 2015, the doctors felt the need to open a separate centre for women. 

Nandita is among the fortunate, her parents can afford expensive care. Moreover, the “shame” associated with addiction is less pervasive among rich communities.

Mayamma*, an addict whose family is poor, is her parent’s seventh child.

“No one kept track of my birthday,” Mayamma says.

She has been to state-funded rehabilitation centres in Bangalore and Chennai, the two cities she has worked in.  

She was married at a young age to a man who introduced her to arrack, or locally made alcohol.

“We began to drink together at night,” she said. 

According to a UN study on female drug users in India, “substance use among women is associated with early initiation into sex, which is often coerced.

“Women are dually affected by substances, both as partners of men using substances and their own use. Since, more often than not, women using substances are also partners of users they have a double disadvantage.”

During the day, Mayamma and her husband worked as day labourers at a construction site together. 

“We had a fairy-tale relationship, until my husband died [after consuming illegal alcohol],” she says.

His death was a crude reminder for her to sober up and seek medical help so that her children had at least one parent.

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