246 human rights abuses against people who use drugs reported over 3 months

People who use drugs frequently suffer human rights abuses, ranging from assault and extortion to having their medicine confiscated, all of which can make it very difficult to access health services.

These are the findings of a report released today as part of the South African Drug Policy Week Conference ‘RUN2016’ happening in Cape Town this week. TB/HIV Care’s StepUp Project recorded 246 human rights violations experienced by people who use drugs in three cities in South Africa over three months.

Shaun Shelly, Advocacy and Psycho-social Co-ordinator for The StepUp Project, said, “We hope that by recording and quantifying these practices, which seem to be tacitly accepted in certain quarters, there will greater awareness that human rights abuses against people who use drugs are indeed happening and are having a significant effect of the delivery of health services to drug users”

The StepUp Project provides health and wellness services such as screening for HIV, TB and sexually-transmitted infections (STIs), other sexual and reproductive health services, distribution of condoms and lubricants, provision of safe injecting equipment, safe disposal of needles and syringes, behaviour change interventions aimed at reducing the risks of drug use and sex, and referral to a range of psychosocial services. The services are provided to people who inject drugs by mobile clinics in recognition that this group of people is particularly vulnerable to a range of health issues, including HIV infection.

While implementing these services the StepUp project staff became aware of a large number of human rights abuses being perpetrated against the people accessing their services. They developed a method of formally logging reports of violations. The 246 violations recorded between August and November 2015 include 28 cases of assault, 8 cases of extortion, 14 detentions without cause and 157 cases of medical supplies being confiscated or broken.

The incidents documented in the report occurred in Cape Town, Pretoria and Durban where the project operates. However in Pretoria they were overwhelmingly concentrated in Moot; and in Belville in Cape Town.

‘Refusing to allow service delivery and harassing service users works against the public good,” says Shelly. “As well as denying people their rights, including the right to access health services, these actions mean that needles can no longer be collected by the StepUp team and the fear of being harassed because they are carrying needles and syringes will encourage people to dispose of needles immediately after use instead of storing them until they can be disposed of safely.

“These actions don’t solve anything,” he added.

Despite the violations, good progress has been made in engaging with communities around providing health services to people who inject drugs. The StepUp Project will continue to work hand-in-hand with communities, police, ward councils and neighbourhood watches with the aim of contributing to the overall wellbeing of all community members, including drug users.

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