A DURBAN addict recovering from substance abuse. Picture: Marilyn Bernard.
A DURBAN addict recovering from substance abuse. Picture: Marilyn Bernard.

Former female heroin addict living on the streets of Durban transforms her life

By Karen Singh Time of article published Aug 31, 2021

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DURBAN - A THIRTY-year-old homeless Durban woman with a heroin use disorder has turned her life around with the assistance of the Belhaven Harm Reduction Centre and now seeks to be a role model to other women with drug problems.

Bongiwe Sibiya, a young mother of two left her home a few years ago as a result of strained family relationships and found herself smoking heroin and cocaine while living on the streets.

“I moved to the streets when things were too much for me at home. I was not getting along with my mother and had already started smoking from peer pressure. The thing about drugs is that they make you feel alone and that nobody understands you.”

According to the South African Network of People that Use Drugs (Sanpud), which runs the Centre based in Greyville in Durban, addicts used drugs as a “solution” to dealing with internal pain and disconnect, but can also generate a range of other problems.

Approximately 200 beneficiaries, of whom 50 are women, are part of the methadone programme at the centre and they receive a range of clinical and harm-reduction services.

For Sibiya it has led to complete rejection by significant people in her life, Sanpud said.

One of her most main goals currently is to recreate the ties that were severed with family members, both by the existing dynamics and later by her drug use.

The network said: “At 28, her life had become meaningless and hopeless as she joined many thousands of young South Africans who carry the burden of the future. In her words, she stared at a future that was dark with no prospects of connection or social mobility. She had also become accustomed to abusive relationships with male partners. Her own feelings of worthlessness held her in cycles of abuse and non-disclosure.”

This all changed when Sibiya decided to access services at the Belhaven Harm Reduction Centre.

Sibiya started her journey at the centre as a beneficiary before she began volunteering her time cooking and cleaning.

She then started to assist the professional medical staff in administering the medical programme by organising the filing system and ensuring that beneficiaries were served in an orderly manner.

It was at Belhaven that Sibiya claims she found her voice and the help that she needed “to grow up and become a role model for others”.

She said the centre is a place where women who use drugs can readjust their lives without being sent into isolated rehabilitation programmes.

This outpatient facility means that services can be accessed without interrupting daily life, she said, adding that work, hustling, relationship building, and creativity all continue while accessing services.

Sibiya said she is committed to getting her life back to normal. She has reconnected with her mother, sees her children regularly and has developed meaningful relationships with staff and other beneficiaries at the centre.

She said she no longer used heroin and has been retained on a methadone opioid substitute for a year. Her goal now is to help other women struggling with problematic drug use and disconnect.

“Being a recovering addict makes it easier to explain the process to people. Also, it gives them hope when they see the changes in me, how my weight has changed, along with my looks. I hope that it makes them believe that they can do it too.”

Sanpud said being a woman who uses drugs means dealing with societal condemnation and self-judgement. Sibiya has found the mechanisms she needs to distance herself from hurtful interactions, and to find those that hare her positive outlook.

She said while some people come with an attitude that could be challenging, it is easier for her to understand them because she has gone through the same thing.

“Some people do take advantage because I am a woman. We have our different stories and backgrounds. I calm myself down and try to get away from them, use some peer supporters to help me,” she said.

Belhaven provides free services including:

  • Health and psycho-social services to homeless and low-income people who use drugs.
  • It encourages beneficiaries to develop their own motivational goals; abstinence is not an imposed goal.
  • It is a space of bi-directional relationships. Trust and non-judgement are core to relationship building at Belhaven Harm Reduction Centre. This is critical for those who understand that connection is core to resolving drug use disorders.
  • Women-centred services that are provided include testing for STDs, conducting pap smears, and providing sanitary packs.

Sanpud said Sibiya is a shining example of “navigation of a new life course.”

“She has made use of what is required for this life transformation – support, appropriate medical assistance, structural support, non-judgemental relationships, and the activation of her own agency,” said the network.

It said centres like the Bellhaven Harm Reduction Centre need to be made available to women who use drugs in all cities, towns, and rural spaces.

“Without programmes like this, reaching out for help and navigating the harsh reality of exclusion is extremely difficult,” said the network.

Citing a seminary 2019 report, Sanpud said the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) published a needs assessment report of Women Who Use Drugs (WWUD) in four cities in South Africa. Durban was one of those cities.

“This report, based on oral histories of women drug users, highlights the plight experienced by women who use drugs. It also highlights their struggles in trying to change their lives, some while still using drugs and others while wanting to radically reduce or abstain from drug use. One of the conclusions of this report is that ‘even with societies’ perceptions and external negative influences looming over the lives of the participants, when given the opportunity to identify solutions to such challenges and life experiences, participants were more than willing to provide’,” said the network.


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