Female drug mules and the need for state-funded education

// 11 January 2010

The problem of drug mules entering the UK is treated like a simple one, with a simple solution. People enter the country with drugs – mainly cocaine or heroin – either in their luggage or swallowed, encased. They are caught by the UK Border Agency when their flights land. They are put in jail to the cost of the British taxpayer, receiving an average sentence of ten years.

According to the Prison Reform Trust, one in five women in the UK’s jails are foreigners; this is compared to the average of 14% for both genders given by the Home Office. Up to 60% of these women are serving sentences for drug-related offences. Most of them are drug mules.

The reasons for women choosing to smuggle drugs vary. The main one is, obviously, poverty: they are told by local drug organisers that if they make a trip to London, they can earn enough to pay back their debts to their landlords, to buy clothes and food for their children, to get health treatment. Simple problems like diabetes or hypertension can be hard to treat if you are on a low income and from a country with no semblance of a welfare state. Nearly all of these women, especially from the Caribbean and west Africa, are single, perhaps with two or three “baby fathers”. They normally have low levels of education.

Olga Heaven, from the charity Hibiscus, the female prisoners welfare project, says that most of these women have never touched drugs. A lot of them have never even travelled before. Whatever way you look at it, ignorant women motivated by desperation will of course agree to making the trip.

Originally set up to deal with the high numbers of Nigerian women ending up in UK jails, Hibiscus acts as a response for the lack of services for women in prison, and argues for a different approach to simply locking up ignorant women for several years. “We believe that if the woman is only a mule and has played no part in the international drug trade as such – i.e., she’s not an organiser – then she shouldn’t be given more than a three-year sentence,” Heaven says. “The drugs should be taken from her, and she should be sent back.”

A large part of Hibiscus’s work is providing education abroad, to prevent women coming here in the first place. Its film Eva Goes to Foreign, which is available in different languages, resulted in a remarkable reduction in drug mules coming from Jamaica, Ghana and Nigeria in the last two years. The charity wants funding for more education programmes in eastern Europe, South Africa and St Lucia – new hotspots for female drug mules, according to Heaven, whose numbers will rise as the economic crisis continues.

But the charity is struggling to raise the funding, despite the obvious and immediate cost benefits the UK prison system would make. Preventing five drug mules coming into the UK through education would save taxpayers half a million pounds a year. When the media gets hold of the fact that there are 11,000 foreign nationals in British prisons, and demands for all of these people to be deported, then that is not good publicity for the government. A deportation drive means these women will be going back to the same communities where they were convinced to become smugglers in the first place. Heaven says nearly all of them will be back.

Comments From You

gadgetgal // Posted 11 January 2010 at 1:34 pm

Really thought-provoking post – I’m glad you’ve highlighted the work of Hibiscus, it’s good to hear of a fully thought out long-term solution to tackle the problem rather than just the usual knee-jerk legislation we seem to get these days! I like their focus on education, they have actually proved that this is the solution rather than just losing them in the criminal justice system.

Maybe a rethink in government is needed – lots of smaller, charitable organisations are coming up with better solutions to problems we have here but suffer from lack of funding. I know they can get a little in the way of government funds but perhaps some kind of redistribution is in order. I don’t know, I’m no expert on where the money goes, it just seems to me that there’s an awful lot of cash that goes into schemes that come to nothing, whereas this organisation has a proven track record!

Syma Tariq // Posted 11 January 2010 at 1:52 pm

Thanks @gadgetgal, and you’re right in saying that charities like these need more funding and scope when their campaigns are proven to work. Jailing a foreign national costs the state between £30k and £50k a year. On top of that, we all hear about how overcrowded our prisons are. The issue of female drug mules might be a minority one, but when there are around 2,000 Jamaicans being held right now, you can see how the costs add up.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 11 January 2010 at 2:17 pm

Thank you Syma for publicising the issue of women being used and then punished whereas the powerful male-dominated drug dealers remain free at large. Once again punitive attempts are being made by central government to reduce the numbers of disadvantaged women travelling to the UK for the purpose of smuggling in drugs.

Hibiscus’s work goes to the root of the problem – targeting women in countries wherein drug dealers operate and informing them of the realities of agreeing to be exploited by the male drug dealers. Prevention is always better than punitive punishment and showing the film to innumerable women proves to work. Particularly given Hibiscus has taken into account differing languages etc.

It is not only unjust sentencing women drug mules to very long sentences but also makes no dent whatsoever to the continuing male exploitation of women’s economic circumstances. But then the UK central government is more concerned with ‘law and order’ rather than taking a more nuanced approach to the problem of precisely why so many disadvantaged women are being exploited by powerful male drug dealers.

Emma // Posted 11 January 2010 at 2:52 pm

Thanks for this very interesting article.

aimee // Posted 11 January 2010 at 6:03 pm

This is a good article… and something definitely needs to be done to help women instead of demonising them. If they were educated and helped in the first place.. if there was more equality then the problem would be much smaller.

I do take issue with some of the language in the post though. Poverty and a lack of education is not the same as ignorance and the ‘more than one baby father’ comment is kind of irrelevant.

polly // Posted 11 January 2010 at 9:16 pm

I can’t help thinking that not having such a ridiculous legal system with regard to drugs would save us wasting money imprisoning poor women as well.

How about legalise the lot? To be honest, if you’re desperate for money, and you’re offered what seems like a good chance to make it, I don’t think education is going to make a big difference. We need to get rid of the illegal drug trade by reforming our laws.

Syma Tariq // Posted 11 January 2010 at 10:24 pm

Thanks @aimee. I was not trying to equate poverty and lack of education to ignorance – perhaps it could have been worded better. The point I was trying to make is that quite a few of these women are literally ignorant about what they are doing – they do not know about drugs, nor the consequences of taking a package of drugs to another country. In a way, they are using these trips as a way of (false) empowerment.

The baby father comment was also made in the same vein – the women who are convinced into these trips do not come from stable family backgrounds. An offensive term for you is a reality in these communities.

Laura // Posted 12 January 2010 at 5:09 pm

Thanks for such an interesting first post, Syma. The work Hibiscus is doing sounds really worthwhile and is certainly invaluable in the current situation, but I do agree with Polly that the UK/US/UN’s “war on drugs” is at the heart of the majority of drug-related problems. If individuals were able to legally produce, sell and take drugs we wouldn’t see this imprisonment and exploitation of women.

masculinist // Posted 13 January 2010 at 10:21 am

to stop drug mules then we need to stop the demand and supply of the drugs. Drug dealers are ruthless, fearless and very rich. They corrupt governments, police and other law enforcement agencies. Get rid of the demand ……which causes wider criminality ….then thats a start.

A drug mule is a drug mule , which ever gender. Same sentances for drug smuggling. Same offence, same punishment.

Anne Onne // Posted 13 January 2010 at 4:19 pm

Thanks for this post. I think this highlights that there is a very real, human side to crime and immigration and drugs, something that is often lost when people talk about it.

I don’t blame the people who do the border work (though I hope they try to exercise compassion as one human to another); they do not make the laws, they have to do their job. It’s up to us and the lawmakers to work out a system that leaves less people behind, and shifts the blame from the most vulnerable to those coercing many, many people from behind the scenes. We need people to understand the complexity of such situations. People don’t do desperate things like this because they are evil or stupid, but because they are terrified and think there is nothing else.

Juliet // Posted 13 January 2010 at 4:38 pm

Very interesting post. I don’t believe these women, who are already being exploited, should be jailed or punished in any way. But I don’t think drugs should be legalised either. They used to be legal (like in the 19th and early 20th centuries) but were made illegal because they were doing so much damage. And I don’t think you’ll ever get rid of demand either.

I don’t know the answer! But to treat these women with a LOT more compassion would certainly be a start.

Morgan Windram-Geddes // Posted 12 August 2010 at 2:10 pm

Thanks for this public post Syma. For those of you who are interested in reading further about a feminist project which studied the female drug mule trade in depth, I completed my Master’s thesis entitled Recognizing women’s work in the cocaine trade : a case study of Jamaican cocaine couriers in 2006, and it is available for access from the Pennsylvania State University, via http://cat.libraries.psu.edu/uhtbin/cgisirsi/89HSsV6J7u/UP-PAT/253950361/9. Though I no longer research on this area, I am still an academic feminist researcher and I think it’s really worth keeping the dialogue up about this topic! best wishes.

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