“We’re adults. We shouldn’t be relying on our families,” says We Mei (not her real name) sadly. She is 47 and before she started working as a peer educator with Five Heart Service Centre helping people who use drugs, she had to ask her family for 10 Yuan ($1.58 dollars) to pay for her methadone maintenance therapy (MMT).
“My family say it’s alright if I don’t have a job, they just want me to put my heart and soul into Five Hearts because it’s work, it’s regular and it helps me have a healthy life. But the hardest part for me is to return to society. After two or three years on methadone we’re normal but if we can’t find jobs, sooner or later we’ll return to the place we were at before.”
The refrain is the same from other MMT users and needle exchange clients in Emei and Chengdu, towns in the Sichuan province in China. The first thing most want is a chance to re-build their lives and enter back into mainstream society, to earn a living wage and be useful.
Last year Wu Mei did manage to find a job in a supermarket in Emei. The rest of the staff however did not talk to her and she was soon asked to leave because the job ‘doesn’t suit you’. Emei is a small town and everyone knows everyone else. It’s hard to hide a past of drug use and few people recognise the difference between being on MMT and being on heroin. “No matter how hard I try to prove that I’ve changed people still look down on me,” she says.
The reality is that drug users are discriminated against despite drug laws passed in China in 2008 that states drug users should have the same rights as any Chinese citizen to education, employment and social support.
Wu Mei and her fellow peers in Emei would like support to set up a cooperative within Five Hearts selling handicrafts that they would produce themselves. Many of the suggestions from drug users for changes in drug and HIV policy and programming in China link to the same desire: to be accepted, equal and useful members of society.
BECOMING INDEPENDENT AND EMPOWERED
Key to helping drug users reintegrate into society is providing psychosocial support for clients of needle exchange and MMT programmes and teaching them new skills.
The priority of all the peer educators is finding opportunities for experience exchange with other projects in China and internationally so they can grow the capacity of the work they are doing with people who use drugs, share their ideas and gain new ones.
The peer educators from Five Hearts in Emei say that the greatest benefit of the outreach work they are doing, which is supported by the Alliance and funded by the Levis Foundation, has been the increase in confidence and self-esteem.
This support is enabling them to expand their harm reduction and prevention activities and have more influence on wider society and its perceptions of drug users.