For more than 10 years Lourdes Angulo has dedicated herself to the prevention of the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections between intravenous drug users.
Born in 1978 in San Luis Río Colorado, Sonora, Lourdes studied Public Administration at the Autonomous University of Baja California. She remembers her childhood with fondness as nothing stood between her and enjoying life- with no TV and few toys to play with, she entertained herself by climbing trees. At age 14 she became a teacher in the CONAFE system. It was there where she first noticed a disparity between genders: “The boys were almost never absent, but the girls were. When I asked the boys, ‘Why didn´t your sister come?’, they would tell me, ‘it´s just that my dad wouldn´t let her come, she had to stay and help my mom or look after my little brother.’”
During her years as a university student, Lourdes participated in a project in which she interviewed migrant women in shelters and deportation centers. “Getting to know their life stories surprised me a lot; these were very brave women who came from very far and experienced very difficult things on their journeys.” Before this, she had worked for PSI Mexico (Population Service International). This organization offered services and products that helped prevent the transmission of HIV and AIDS, such as sanitary injection equipment, condoms, and information to the intravenous drug using population: men with homoerotic practices, transgender women, sex workers, migrants, people with HIV and incarcerated people. They offered rapid HIV testing, referrals and accompaniment to health centers, as well as workshops having to do with gendered violence, sexual and reproductive health, and human rights.
In 2013 PSI closed their branch in Mexico. Lourdes and some of her former colleagues from PSI decided to dedicate themselves to keep working for the health and human rights of these populations. With this goal in mind, they established Integración Social Verter AC. To this day there is no other organization in Mexicali that dedicates itself to these types of services. Lourdes comments that “the border used to be the place where drugs went from Mexico to the U.S, but then they started to stay in Mexico. Right now there is also a lot of consumption of the drug ice (also known as crystal).”
Lourdes has had to find funding, write proposals, submit projects to be financed, administer the projects and their accounting requirements, establish alliances and partnerships with other institutions, give workshops, refer and accompany drug users to health centers, bring to light human right´s violations, bring clean needles to drug users, among many other things. More recently she has also been working to bring together the women she works with to strengthen the network of support between them. Although the number of male intravenous drug users is higher than that of women, the women live greater violence simply because they are women:
“The stigma against female drug users is higher. They receive a lot of violence from their partners, who are also drug users. The men often don´t let them leave to access health services, get clean syringes or address other health needs they might have. And many women, because of this stigma, prefer not to go out at all. They are also often a target of police violence, and some of them also work as sex workers, so they have run-ins with the police in that context. Little by little we have been able to get closer to this group and gain their trust, and the numbers that are coming to us for clean syringes continues to increase. We still go to look for a lot of these women in their own spaces, but the idea is that they come to us so that we can offer them HIV and pregnancy tests. We also support them when they are victims of rape, for example, or abuses by the police, who are very violent towards them. It is very common, for example, when they visit public hospitals, to be told ‘Ah! You are a drug user, you want to die’, and because of this they don´t give them proper medical attention.”
Una mujer usuaria de drogas intercambia jeringas usadas por nuevas.
The main achievement of Verter has been to maintain their attention center, “La Estación” for four years. Although they have managed to get funding for basic materials, no public institution has supported them by paying for their rent or the services that they provide. In any case, it is already a place recognized by the people: “We have a lot of love for what we do, it is not an office, it is a personal commitment to life.”
The funding received from Fondo Semillas has helped them organize support groups for women in Mexicali, San Luis Río Colorado, and Tijuana. These groups have let the women ground themselves and get back in touch with themselves; they share their personal experiences with each other. Many of them find themselves in the same situation as other women in the group, living downtown, but now they recognize each other´s faces, whereas before these sessions they didn´t have the same support network:
“These women are so caught up in their situations of consumption, of work, of prostitution to be able to get drugs (sometimes getting drugs for their partner as well), that they often don´t have the time to stop for a little to talk to another female user; they mostly don´t have friends, let alone a family to support them, they are very alone. What is important is that they have the opportunity to share their experiences of health and violence. One of them shared how she resolved a certain situation, and then they started to share advice. Many drug users die suddenly and alone from overdosing or even tuberculosis. If they have a partner, their partner often leaves them when they get sick; they really don´t care about their health because it scares them and they prefer to run away; they don´t want to do anything for these women because they often think they will be prosecuted, and for this reason they just leave them alone when they overdose. When two days go by and, for example, they don´t see Sandra, they start to ask themselves, where is Sandra? Does anyone know where she lives? We have to look for her. They are always out alone. So if they stop seeing someone every day-because they come out daily-that is already a red flag: what is happening with her? Maybe something happened to her”.
This network strengthening has been crucial. It now goes far beyond treatment of HIV and STIs.
“Many of the pregnant users do not have access to prenatal care. What´s worse is that when they do have access, the simple fact of being a drug user can get their children taken away from them by the hospitals. Doctors are very insensitive to withdrawal syndrome. When these women are giving birth or in postpartum without any medication, they are basically forced to flee from the hospital and leave their babies, and when they return they are told “no, you left and abandoned your child”.
Additionally, they have identified a need to work for violence prevention:
“We have to think about the young and adolescent girls; believe me when I say that in these border towns the consumption of drugs is really high, and drug users are starting at a younger age. They are women with a lot of health needs who live a lot of violence, they don´t have networks of support. They are women that if you were to give them other opportunities they could go as far as to stop using drugs. But we have to offer them alternatives. It is a question of public health. HIV is increasingly affecting younger women and women in different contexts.”
Lourdes knows that the work she has put in maintaining La Estación has been fruitful: the women feel as if they have a center of support that goes beyond syringes and condoms; women arrive and share a problem they had with their partner or sometimes just to chat. “They are constant and committed, they try to come daily”. Lourdes feels very proud of having decided to continue with this work. She sees herself working in Verter for much longer. “I love being here, being in the field, going to these communities”.
1 En México, Baja California es una de las entidades que presenta una mayor prevalencia del uso de drogas ilegales. Cfr. Salazar Páez, Iraís. El consumo de drogas ilegales en Baja California. Una perspectiva desde los determinantes sociales de la salud. Tesis de Maestría en Estudios de Población, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, Tijuana, 2012, págs. 40-43.
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