The F-Word and Substance Use

I am very excited about the conference in May – a space to focus on women and family experiences of substance use. In almost 30 years involved in the substance use field, I can only think of handful of such spaces.

It is an important time to consider the specific experiences of substance using women and their families. The concerning increase in drug related deaths of women, particularly in intentional overdoses, the absence of acknowledgment of women’s needs with in the UK drug strategy perpetuates the chasm in both our strategic understanding and planning, and service delivery for women and their families. Continuing austerity reduces the limited service provision that exists for women. Furthermore, the current maelstrom around level of sexual harassment and assault experienced by women and children offers opportunities for us all to reflect on the significant levels of abuse present in the lives of many – most –  drug and alcohol using women. The impact of the focus on ‘trauma’ in the last decade has been to individualise, depoliticise and de gender experiences of men’s violence toward women and children.  Development of abuse informed strategies and services – literally a matter of life and death – must include an understanding of how best to support women and their children in substance misuse services and challenge and reduce abuse perpetrated by male service users. How do we collectively do this?

A feminist underpinning to this work is a priority. Gender is more than a simply a variable.

Drug using mothers exist on the margins of drug treatment and research and, yet they are, simultaneously, a highly visible and stigmatised group, subject to moral condemnation and threats to their reproductive rights.   There is a lack of understanding of the specific needs of drug using mothers and their children precisely because of the masculinist hegemony that fails to consider gendered experiences of routes into, in and out, of drug use. This marginalises women and their children’s experience. Responses remain bio- medicalised, individualised, and disease-focussed, omitting attention to structural issues, including social inequality and poverty. Children are isolated, stigmatised and they are locked into secrecy and silence. There is an urgent need to find pathways that to bring into the open the lived experiences of women and their children.

A feminist approach lends itself to making visible the unknowns of drug using women and their children’s lives which necessitates a letting go of the negative assumptions about drug users and their children. Elizabeth Ettorre, one of our keynote speakers, calls for researchers to ‘bear witness to the day-to-day realities of the lives of women drug users’ (2015: 798) and Bettina Aptheker (1989) suggests  ‘ways of knowing’, of understanding women’s lives, can be explored in ‘dailiness’, focussing  on understanding the patterns and meanings  in everyday lives in the face of the oppression. My own research is focusing on the daily experiences of children AND their mother’s experiences, centred around a typical day at school.

Both focussing on day to day lives, and the space the conference is creating an invitation to women and their families back from the margins.



Ettorre, E. (2015) ‘Embodied Deviance, Gender, and Epistemologies of Ignorance: Re-Visioning Drugs Use in a Neurochemical, Unjust World’. Substance Use & Misuse 50:6, pp.794-805.

Aptheker, B. (1989) Tapestries of Life: Women’s Work, Women’s Consciousness and the Meaning of Daily Life. University of Massachusetts Press.


Post by Joyce Nicholson, co-founder of DAWF. More info about Joyce can be found here.

Published by DAWF

Drugs, Alcohol, Women, and Families

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