International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy

2. Women

Women have the right to enjoy human rights and fundamental freedoms on a non-discriminatory basis in all fields of life on the basis of equality with men. This right applies to women who use drugs and women who are involved in the drug trade or dependent on illicit drug economies.

In accordance with these rights, States shall:

i. Take all appropriate measures, including legislative, administrative, social, and educational measures, to prevent, mitigate, and remediate any disproportionate or otherwise discriminatory impact on women as a result of drug laws, policies, and practices, particularly where aggravated effects result from intersecting forms of discrimination.

To facilitate the above, States should:

ii. Obtain and disseminate age- and sex-disaggregated data on drug use and related harms and on the nature of women’s involvement in the illicit drug trade, including involvement in the criminal justice system as a result of allegedly using drugs or being involved in drug-related crime.


International human rights law establishes a State obligation to take all necessary steps to give effect to the rights enshrined in treaties on a non-discriminatory basis, in addition to women’s rights to non-discrimination and equality as specifically set out in international and regional instruments, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which has been ratified by 189 States.671 For example, the obligation to ensure women’s right to health requires removing legal and other obstacles that prevent women from accessing and benefiting from health care on a basis of equality with men, including by addressing traditional, historical, religious, and cultural attitudes that affect access to determinants of health and health goods and services.672

International human rights law also requires States to adopt and pursue policies to address intersecting forms of discrimination and their compounded negative impacts.673 Several UN treaty bodies have acknowledged the existence of intersecting discrimination as distinct discrimination resulting from multiple, intersecting factors of disadvantage.674 For example, women may experience additional discrimination due to the intersection of sex with other factors, such as age, race, ethnicity, religion, economic status, sexual orientation or gender identity, engagement in sex work, and health status, including living with HIV.675 These factors combine to produce distinct forms of discrimination, such as the denial of reproductive health services to women based on race and poverty.676 Intersecting discrimination may also express itself as the stereotyping of subgroups of women, such as the categorisation of women who use drugs as immoral, sexually promiscuous, and unfit to be mothers, caregivers, or partners.

Women who use drugs, who are involved in the drug trade, or who are dependent on illicit drug economies face distinct forms of discriminatory treatment. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights have recognised that women who use drugs face intersecting forms of gender-based discrimination, including in health care, and recommend that States adopt measures to address such multiple forms of discrimination.677 Furthermore, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has expressed concern about the lack of data on women who use drugs and women in need of drug dependence treatment, including in prison, and recommends that States collect such information to determine the extent of the problem and develop appropriate interventions.678

The UN Working Group on the Issue of Discrimination against Women in Law and in Practice has emphasised that

States must urgently take concrete measures to meet their commitments to ensuring women’s rights in drug policies and programmes. This cannot happen if issues and concerns that are specific to women remain invisible and neglected. In keeping with the Sustainable Development Goals, in which gender equality is a stand-alone goal as well as being incorporated in all other goals and targets, tackling the impact of drug policies on women deserves proper attention and visibility. Drug policies cannot be effective without addressing the root causes of structural inequality and discrimination, which place women in a subordinate role in society, including in the family, often leading to experiences of violence, marginalisation and domination. Marginalisation of women, poverty, gender-based violence, lack of job opportunities and absence of social protection from the State, together with the need to support their family, can drive women into committing drug-related offences.679