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Tsunami disaster – countries in crisis

Peer treatment centre combats drug abuse in tsunami-affected Maldives communities

UNICEF Image: Maldives: Tsunami
© UNICEF/HQ06-2105/Jason Taylor
Young men stand in front of "Journey", where daily drug awareness counselling, outreach activities and 12-step programmes are provided by the staff of 12 recovering addicts.

By Bronwyn Curran

MALÉ, Maldives, 22 November 2006 – Hasan was handcuffed to a coconut palm on the Maldives’ main prison island when the devastating tsunami swept across the Indian Ocean.

Combined with the pressures of prison life, the experience weakened his resolve to stay off heroin. “I thought I was never going to get out of jail,” recalled Hasan. “With all the depression, punishment and fighting, I got fed up. So the next day I started using again.”

Hasan was eventually released from prison. Free and nursing a new heroin habit, he went straight to the drug rehabilitation centre on another island.

After rehab, he and several friends who had been through the same ordeal decided to set up a community-based group providing after-care and relapse prevention for recovering addicts. Their non-governmental organization, known as Journey, is the first of its kind in the Maldives.

Drug abuse exacerbated

Even before the tsunami, heroin use was blamed for severe economic losses in the Maldives. Official estimates put the number of heroin addicts at 3,000 – an alarming 1 per cent of the population – with 12 as the average age of first use.

After the tsunami devastated some of the Maldives’ 200 inhabited islands and displaced 29,000 people, the drug problem was exacerbated. Many believed the high rate of heroin use was caused largely by population shifts, overpopulation and poor employment prospects on the islands.

© UNICEF/HQ06-2094/Jason Taylor
Post signs stand in front of "Journey", a community-based group that provides after-care and relapse prevention for recovering addicts in Male, the capital of Maldives.

In early 2006, UNICEF began giving technical support to Journey, recognizing heroin addiction as a major crisis gripping families in the Maldives.

“When a child’s parents or siblings are addicts, the child may be affected by breakdown of family ties, family income loss and possibly abuse. Such factors have the potential to push children into the cycle of drug abuse,” says UNICEF’s Head of Child Protection and Adolescent Livelihoods in the Maldives, Laura Fragiacomo.

The rise in needle use, combined with overcrowded living conditions among those displaced by the tsunami, has also put the islands’ population at higher risk of HIV infection. “HIV is going to hit this country like a truck, because the drug problem is so out of control,” warns Ms. Fragiacomo.

Help for recovering addicts

For Hasan, recovery means struggling with discrimination and stigma, as well. Getting a job and finding a wife are almost impossible for recovering addicts like him.

“Malé is such a small place,” he laments. “Just walking around the streets, everyone says, ‘There goes Hasan. He’s an addict.’ We get stigmatized very easily.”

At Journey, the staff of 12 recovering addicts provides daily drug awareness counselling, outreach activities and 12-step programmes. “Just the opportunity to discuss these issues, there is nothing in the country like that,” says Ms. Fragiacomo. 

To combat unemployment, UNICEF is helping Journey set up a vocational training centre for recovering addicts. UNICEF has also brought in YAKITA, Indonesia’s lead peer-based drug recovery NGO, to help Journey conduct the country’s first drug use survey of young people. And a national drug-prevention awareness campaign is also under way to reach more young people, teachers and parents.

But the Maldives has a long way to go before substance abuse is under control. The young men and women at Journey, who spend their days helping each other through recovery, know the challenges all too well.




December 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Rob McBride reports on measures to combat elevated heroin use in tsunami-affected communities in the Maldives.
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