This article was originally written by Soonh Ladhi, Vice President of Sindh Green Development Organization. You can view their Facebook page here.

Sindh Green Development Organization are members of Youth RISE’s Network. To learn more about Youth RISE’s Organizational Membership click here.

Growing up in Pakistan, I quickly learned that several topics are considered “taboo” in our society, and talking about them is considered a sin. One of those taboo topics is substance use. If a teenage son is caught smoking cigarettes/tobacco, he is beaten up by his parents. Teenage girls smoking cigarettes is something you would never even see. If, by chance, any woman smokes, she is considered a “bad woman.” The same does not apply for men. We live in a world where gender discrimination is seen in every walk of life, including substance use.

Instead of heart-to-heart conversation, parents in Pakistan tend to use emotional blackmail, or mental and physical abuse as a weapon to stop their children from using substances. The end result is that many teenagers use all kinds of substances, including drugs, tobacco, and alcohol, secretly from their parents in unsafe environments.

Pakistan is a country where drugs are cheap and easily available. Educating the children is essential and much needed. Drugs spark curiosity among the teenage boys, and they start trying different substances. Their lack of knowledge often leads to drug abuse and death from overdose.

I led the Support. Don’t Punish. campaign in Pakistan from Sindh Green Development Organization’s platform this year. We ran a digital campaign to raise awareness of Support. Don’t Punish. and call for Drug policy reforms. Drug policies should have a human rights based approach and should focus more on Harm Reduction. Due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, we decided to use social media platforms for our campaign.

To make the campaign more interesting, SGDO announced video and art competitions and offered prizes for the winners. We got an overwhelming response on competitions. Throughout the blog you can see some of the art pieces produced by participants.

Our campaign was featured on Voice of Sindh a digital news and media website, on 27th June. We also made a YouTube video about how we ran the Support Don’t Punish campaign in Pakistan and what challenges we faced. It is up on YouTube. 

You can see the YouTube video here: 

We also faced some challenges as people were not aware of the “Support Don’t Punish” campaign in Pakistan or its purpose in Pakistan. Some people frowned upon and thought we are promoting drug use in an “Islamic country”. We explained to them that drug use exists in Pakistan, that people who use drugs are socially repressed, stigmatized and criminalized. Instead of suppressing the issues, let’s talk about them and solve them. 

Many people thought that the “Death penalty” for drug offenders should not be revoked, so we had disagreements there as well. 

We contacted newspapers in an attempt to get news of our campaign published. However, many responded sayin they could not publish certain words “in favour of drug users”, such as talking about harm reduction or even discussions around the human rights approach to drug offences. Still Awami Awaz, a Sindhi newspaper, published the news of our campaign in their printed and E-version of the newspaper.

Despite the challenges, overall, we had a very participatory campaign. We had participants from diverse backgrounds. The campaign was inclusive. I realized by using technology we can reach much higher number of people at a low cost. We would have reached 200 people in a workshop that we planned to do in person initially with the same cost, but our digital campaign has reached to over 150,000 people on social media. 

I felt there is a significant lack of awareness and cultural barriers. It will take more effort and time to penetrate our message into people’s minds.

If nothing else, our campaign stirred up much conversation about the Support. Don’t Punish. campaign, harm reduction, drug policy reform, and the War on Drugs.

In Pakistan and around the world we see people using contaminated injection equipment that causes transmission of HIV and other diseases. The number of people injecting on streets and open spaces is alarmingly high in Pakistan. According to The Senate Standing Committee on Interior and Narcotics Control seven hundred people in Pakistan die because of drug-related complications every day. We can save these lives if we work on public health approach (harm reduction) and use the human rights based approach for people who use drugs. We need to support people rather than punish them for a healthy and inclusive society.