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Open Access Research article

Falling through the cracks: a qualitative study of HIV risks among women who use drugs and alcohol in Northeast India

Michelle Kermode1*, Collins Z Sono2, Chingzaning Hangzo Songput3 and Alexandra Devine1

Author Affiliations

1 Nossal Institute for Global Health, University of Melbourne, Level 4, 161 Barry St, Carlton, VIC, 3010, Australia

2 Project ORCHID, Emmanuel Hospital Association, Dimapur, Nagaland, India

3 Project ORCHID, Emmanuel Hospital Association, Imphal, Manipur, India

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BMC International Health and Human Rights 2013, 13:9  doi:10.1186/1472-698X-13-9

Published: 29 January 2013



HIV risks for women who inject drugs and those who engage in sex work are well documented. Women who are dependent on non-injecting drugs and alcohol are also likely to have increased vulnerability to HIV infection, but until they actually inject drugs or engage in sex work, are unlikely to come to the attention of HIV prevention programs.


We undertook a qualitative study involving nine focus group discussions (FGDs) and 27 key informant interviews to investigate the context of female drug and alcohol use in two high HIV prevalence states of India (Manipur and Nagaland) and to describe their HIV risks. The FGD and interview transcripts were thematically analyzed


The women were relatively young (mean age 31 years in Manipur and 28 years in Nagaland), but 64% in Manipur and 35% in Nagaland were widowed or divorced. Both heroin and alcohol were commonly used by the women from Manipur, while alcohol was primarily used by the women from Nagaland, especially in the context of ‘booze joints’ (illicit bars). Reasons for drug and alcohol use included: to avoid symptoms of withdrawal, to suppress emotional pain, to overcome the shame of sex work, pleasure, and widowhood. HIV vulnerability was clearly described, not only in relation to injecting drug use and sex work, but also alcohol consumption.


The contribution of alcohol use to the HIV vulnerability of women is not currently considered when HIV prevention programs are being designed and implemented leaving a group of high-risk women uncovered by much needed services such as treatment for a range of health problems including alcohol dependence.

Alcohol; HIV; India; Substance use; Women