Opium supports economy but hurts women in Afghanistan I originally met Ali in the Shahamat Health and Rehabilitation Organization, SHRO, in Herat, Afghanistant, in 2007. He was addicted to opium and heroin. Ali said he wanted to relieve himself from this ferocious enemy as soon as possible, but that it was not easy. He looked over at his roommate, Ghafar, who was lying on his bed. It was clear he was in severe pain. Ali said he believed that being addicted to opium was more painful than having cancer would be. Ali said he became addicted to opium and heroin in Iran. After finishing high school in Afghanistan, he went to Iran to find work to help support his family, whose economic situation was severe. But life was not easy there, and he began to use drugs to make himself feel better. With his eyes full of tears, he said that in the beginning, he felt happy after using the drugs. But then he began to hate it. He said that his family and society didn’t respect him and called him malevolent. Although Ali feels alone, isolated from his family and society, there are many others like him who are addicted to opium and other drugs. There were more than 20 men in the SHRO who came for treatment. Outside the SHRO, Ali is one of the 1 million people addicted to drugs of the 30 million people living in Afghanistan. Opium is a drug made from the poppy plant. Poppies grow in many different countries, but most poppies today are used to make heroin. Opium is made by drying the latex contained within the opium poppy. It contains morphine, a bitter crystalline narcotic, which is what makes opium addictive. Addiction is one of the major problems in Afghan society that creates social disorder. Being addicted is not acceptable in society, which on one hand discourages the use of drugs. On the the other hand, though, it makes people who are addicted feel more isolated, which tends to make them more dependable on the drugs. The majority of addicted Afghans are the refugees who went to Iran for work, poppy field workers in Afghanistan, and members of their families. Opium addiction heavily affects women in Afghanistan and around the world. There are 130,000 women addicted to opium in Afghanistan, according to the U.N. Drugs and Criminal Office, UNDCO. Women become addicted to opium through many different ways. Some become addicted while working in poppy fields. Some become addicted because they take the opium home to use it in the place of medicine, according to IRIN, a U.N. news service. Still others become addicted because their husbands force them to in order to make them less resistant. Sharifa, 22, whose mother asked that her name be changed to protect their family, is addicted to opium. Her mother said Sharifa’s husband started putting opium in her food and that is how she became addicted. “She used to complain and fight with her husband and ask her husband to care more for the family and bring enough food,” Shrifa’s mother said. Her mother explained that Sharifa’s husbands used to badly beat her. One day the beatings became so bad that the neighbors brought Sharifa to her mother’s house. But her mother said her husband came and took her back home. To punish her, he cut off all her hair. Her mother said he also started putting opium in her food in order to make her less resistant and make her stop complaining. Sharifa’s 4-year-old son is addicted to opium too, her mother said. “Now I beg Sharifa to come to my house, but she cannot because she and her 4-year-old son are addicted and need opium,” her mother said bitterly. Sharifa’s husband could not be reached for comment. Because Afghanistan has a patriarchal society, many women are deprived of their basic rights. Children are, too. About 5,000 children in Afghanistan are addicted to opium, according to a survey conducted by Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, an independent political and social organization of Afghan women struggling for peace, freedom, democracy and women’s rights. The majority of these children become addicted because of their parents. In some cases, their mothers are addicted to opium while they are pregnant with the children and pass the addiction on to them. In other cases, mothers lack awareness about the side effects of opium and just think that boiling poppy seeds in water and feeding it to their children just helps them to sleep better. Side effects of using opium include confusion; difficulty urinating; fast or slow heartbeat; seizures; severe dizziness or fainting; slowed or difficult breathing; tremors; and vision changes, according to a drug information website. People can also have allergic reactions to opium, which include rashes, hives, itching, difficulty breathing, tightness in the chest, and swelling of the mouth, face, lips, or tongue. But although opium addiction is a large problem here, its eradication is also controversial because it supports people’s livelihoods and the economy.

“Ninety-three percent of [the] world’s total opiate is produced by Afghanistan, and the crop was estimated [at] an export value of around $3.1 billion, which is equivalent to 46 percent of [the] Afghanistan Gross Domestic Product,” said wrote Jeffrey Clemens, a scholar of Harvard University.

This statistics indicate that cultivating opium plays an important role in the contemporary economy of Afghanistan. There is a high demand for it in the market, and some argue that if cultivating opium is eliminated in Afghanistan that another county will just take its place. Others say that cultivating is a huge labor opportunity for Afghan farmers. The other salient point about cultivating opium has is the labor opportunity. About 366,500 Afghan families cultivated opium poppy in 2007 and 2008, according to Clemens. This means that huge part of land in Afghanistan is dedicated to cultivating opium – and a lot of labor is needed. Moreover, opium itself requires more cultivating than other crops. For example, while wheat requires just 41 days of cultivation, opium requires 350 days, according to Clemens. Opium also requires more labor during its harvesting time, which lasts longer – two to three weeks – than the harvesting time of other crops, like wheat. Opium laborers also earn more than triple the wages that laborers of other crops earn. They typically earn $6.80 per day, whereas laborers who cultivate wheat typically earn $1 or $2 per day. Opium cultivation affects more than just the economy, according to IRIN. “An interesting result of the labor-intensive nature of opium production is its effect on the rural household economy, the division of labor and opportunities for Afghan women,” according to one IRIN report. As Afghanistan is a traditional Islamic society, and women do not have much chance to work , and have economic Independence. Opium cultivations is a way that women in rural areas of the country can become economically independent. Bibi Deendaray, 55, is a female farmer in the poppy fields of the Kandahar province of Afghanistan. She says the crop has saved her family, according to an UNDCO report. “In fact, I should say it is not an illicit crop but rather a blessing, which saves the lives of my children, grandchildren and two widowed daughters,” she said. “In general, it is the only means of survival for thousands of women-headed households, women and children in our village whose men is either jobless or was killed during the war.” On one hand, people say that eradicating the crop will devastate women-headed households. But others say addiction is equally devastating.

The government of Afghanistan has taken some steps to eradicate opium. One of these steps was giving the law that opium should be eradicated and cultivating it is illegal. the other step was destroying some of the farmers lands. But some say that the government has been complicit in the drug trade.

“Many Afghan Government officials are believed to profit from the drug trade,” a U.S. State Department report from 2009 said. The report added that narcotics-related corruption was particularly pervasive at the provincial and district levels of government. But others say the government can’t control the problem alone. They say that farmers must want to create a change. I believe that farmers are the root of this huge tree, so their decision can make a difference. But as cultivating opium is for their benefit – they can earn more money and support their household better – why should they decide to cultivate another crop? They say they worry that a new crop won’t earn as much money as opium does. I think that there are some alternative solutions that can bring a change in the mind of the farmers, and a change in the life of women, as well as the whole nation. Firstly, as media has an unbelievable impact on the society, some advertisement about the side effects and danger of opium – and also focusing on the point that it is against Islamic law and the government’s laws – can make some differences. It should be stressed that despite some short-term benefits, opium cultivation can’t offer sustainable solutions to women for either their economic needs or increased rights in the long run because cultivating it is against law and it will be vanished one day. Media can be especially effective in rural areas, where people might not go to school but do watch TV or listen to the radio. By hearing, thinking about and talking about the negative aspects of opium, farmers might change their mind and not plant opium.

Secondly, one of the alternative choices can be to cultivate saffron instead of opium. Saffron is a crop with a very high demand and high price in the world market. It is valued for it is color and taste, and mostly it is used for cooking as a spice and in tea.

Abdul Samad, a farmer in the Herat province, says that more money can be earned through saffron than opium, according to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, nonprofit organization that operations in London and Washington, D.C. “I make more money than I used to,” he said. “With poppy, I got between US $400 and $600 for each jerib [half acre] of land. Now I make more than US $5,000.” In addition to being a valuable crop, saffron is also morally accepted by society and Islamic law and legally accepted by Afghanistan’s government. Cultivating it instead of opium will bring more prosperity to the society. More importantly, if the cultivation of saffron develops, women can also work and earn money as much as, if not more than, she could earn in the poppy fields. Cultivation of saffron may be the only medicine that can cure widespread addiction, which Ali says is worse than cancer.

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

Take action! This post was submitted in response to Voices of Our Future 2011 Assignment: Feature Stories.

Comment on this Post


A well written article with excellent research giving an in depth view of the problem. Thank you for this thoughtful article. I appreciate your solution of cultivating saffron, a non-addictive precious spice with healing properties. Well worth waiting for! Usha.

Let your light shine!

Addiction is a very serious problem in Afghanistan, and for Afghan women, and they are being addicted in vary ways. when i was at home i have met some of the addicted women, and i have had joined a conference about cultivation of opium in Afghanistan. Therefore it always made me to think, and finally i decided to share this with my World Pulse community. Thanks a lot for your comment! Best Regards Marvah Shakib


Dear Marvah,

Thank you for sharing this well-written article with us. There are so many facets to the question of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, but one of the things that we rarely hear about, is the affect on women and women-headed households. It seems to me that there is no easy answer to this problem, and that women could be drastically and negatively affected if they are not taken into account when creating solutions.

One thing that is rarely, if ever talked about, is the demand side for opium production. If there is demand from the US, Europe, Russia, etc, for heroine, it makes sense that there will always be a country or a region willing to supply this drug? One question I would ask is what more can be done on the demand-side to help unburden countries like Afghanistan in terms of the illicit drug trade.

Great article, thank you for opening our eyes!


"Tell me then, what will you do with your one wild, sweet, and precious life?" -Mary Oliver

Exactly, it is really difficult to say that opium should remain, or it should be completely eradicated because many people's life is inter-related with the cultivation of opium. When i met Ali in 2007, it made me to think about whatever i was seeing this issue from the surface. and ask the question that everyone suffers, weather by using, or having a family member who use it, or even having his country in the BLACK LISTor second drug producer in the world. But as i researched, even i became confused to support that should its cultivation come to the end or not, and if yes then what will those families do. In addition to your question, it is a dirty fact that there is a high demand for Opium, as i was reading in an artical only 50% of the demand is from Iran, and the opium from Afghanistan goes to Iran, then Pakistan, then central Asian countries. It is hard to say that what solution should be given for the demand, however, in terms of Afghanistan for example if our neighbors have very strict rules as i think they have, then the traders will not be able to go through these countries and it can be reduced, but it might be only an utupian idea, because it USA cant stop Mexico from producing and sending it to USA how can others do! By the way, than u so much for the comment. Regards Marvah Shakib


Well done Marvah! This article raises important questions, and you show a side of the story that I have not heard before. The way you blend personal stories in with the facts makes this piece very strong, and easy to read. I was disturbed to hear about how opium addiction is impacting the lives of women and children... and how it can seem like the only option for making an income.

I love how you point to saffron as a potential solution for this problem, but echo Rachael's statement above about curbing the demand... clearly this is a global problem. I think that your point about education is important too, and I hope that rather than forcibly eliminating poppy growing, viable alternatives are supported.

Thanks for bringing this issue to a global audience! Scott

Scott Beck

Dear Marvah, Thanks for sharing this well-researched and well-written article. I knew that there were many addicts in Afghanistan, but I didn't know the number of addicted women is so high. and also the solution of saffron replacement seems very interesting, but is it practical? I mean can this plant be cultivated in all those places where opium is cultivated? I also heard that despite the internatioanl support, this solution hasn't been completely successful because of corruption and lack of commitment in Afghanistan government. I hope one they we can see an Afghanistan free of Opium and full of prosperity.

Again thanks for sharing these information with us. Masooma