Meeting the needs of women who use drugs in Malaysia

Women who use drugs are highly vulnerable to HIV. Outside of sub-Saharan Africa, one third of HIV infections are the result of injecting drugs. Women face intense stigma and discrimination and this can make accessing health services very difficult. Where there are services available, they all too often fail to meet the particular needs of women.

The Alliance’s Community Action on Harm Reduction project (CAHR) focuses on improving the lives of drug users, their partners and families in five countries, including Malaysia. A fundamental part of this work is reaching women who use drugs and making sure harm reduction services meet their needs.

Services all too often fail to meet the particular needs of women who use drugs.

Identifying risk factors

The CAHR project is working with the Malaysian AIDS Council (MAC) and has carried out research to identify the needs, risk factors and barriers to treatment faced by women who use drugs. This research will form the basis of a pilot project to address these issues.

The research, conducted by the Centre of Excellence for Research in AIDS at the University of Malaya, surveyed 104 women who use drugs in Kuala Lumpur. The majority were aged between 31 and 50 years, ethnically Malay, and had received some secondary school education. Almost two out of ten women engaged in sex work, and nearly all women interviewed had been detained in the past. Most were detained by the police. The main substances they reported using were methamphetamines, alcohol and heroin. A quarter of participants were on methadone.

The research showed that they were especially vulnerable to sexual violence and HIV. One in five women reported having been physically threatened, 27% had been sexually molested as a child and one in five had been forced to have sex. Reducing this vulnerability to sexual violence is a key part of the programme. The programme also looks at improving the lives of women who use drugs through:

  • Drug management services including methadone therapy
  • HIV prevention and reducing the risks related to sex work 
  • Sexual and reproductive health services
  • Care for children or women who use drugs
  • Support for those living with HIV
  • Income generation
  • Advocacy support

You can read the full study here