In 2017 Fr. Eamon Sheridan was missioned to Myanmar with the Columban Rebirth and Recovery Centre. He is raising funds to build a place in Myanmar’s Kachin State where women who are drug addicts can come out of the shadows and find recovery. This article was first published in the January/February 2021 Far East magazine.

Kachin Land is a remote area of north eastern Myanmar. The Kachin people are a warm, generous, welcoming people. They are mostly Christian in this predominantly Buddhist country. They are victims of the world’s longest civil conflict, almost 70 years, between the Kachin Independence Army and the Burmese Military. It flared up again in 2011 driving 130,000 people from their homes and villages into camps for internally displaced people. Kachin Land is rich in natural resources that are harvested for others while the local people remain very poor.

Most Kachins live in very remote areas and survive on subsistence farming. The area is the second biggest producer of heroin and the biggest producer of metaamphetamines in the world. With no prospect of meaningful work many young people are easy prey for the drug pushers. Heroin, known as No 4 here, is the drug of choice and is easily and cheaply available. Thousands are dying, families are being torn apart and the culture destroyed by addiction. It is of epidemic proportions. It is no exaggeration to say that every family has at least one member addicted to heroin. The majority of our clients also test positive for HIV and/ or Hepatitis C.

Although drug addiction is rife across all strata of society, for cultural and social reasons the epidemic among women is hidden. While local faith-based groups have tried to respond to the chronic problem of drug addiction among men, there is no outreach to women. There is not one facility in Kachin state that offers a recovery programme to women and so women addicts suffer in silence in the shadows of this epidemic. They are the forgotten people in this unfolding tragedy.

One of our clients, Peter (not his real name) told me the story of Mary (not her real name.) Mary comes from a very poor family. Her father died when she was very young, and she and her younger brother were raised by her mother, who had no regular income. She finished school in 4th grade when she was just 10 years of age. In her late teens she began to experiment with drugs with her friends. Drinking what is called ‘formula’ here, a mixture of alcohol and opium, she quickly became addicted. To feed her habit she began singing in restaurants and bars and she sold her body for sex to the patrons. On at least three occasions she became pregnant and was forced to have an abortion each time. By her early twenties she was a broken young woman.

It was at this time that Peter met her and introduced Mary and her friends to heroin. She became addicted to heroin and earned money through prostitution and transporting and selling heroin for a drug dealer.

Eventually she was caught selling drugs and spent three years in prison. During this time Peter came to our centre and found the key to recovery. He is now three years sober and is married with a child. Recently he met Mary in the market after her release from prison. She looked very thin and sick. She was using heroin again and asked if she could come to our Rehab centre. He told her that at the moment we had no place but that we were planning to build a dormitory for women. He felt bad that he had introduced her to heroin and promised to inform her when the dormitory is finished so that she can come and find recovery.

There are many women like Mary. They are hidden in the shadows with nowhere to turn. While a stigma attaches to male drug addicts it is doubly so for female addicts. Some women addicts are trafficked to different parts of Myanmar and to neighbouring countries, especially China, to work in the sex industry.

The Rebirth Rehabilitation Centre (RRC) was founded in 2015 by the Catholic Diocese of Myitkyina. This diocese was founded and staffed by Columbans from 1936 until 1978 when all Columbans had to leave. The Rebirth Rehabilitation Centre offers a programme that treats addiction as a disease not as a moral failing. We have a holistic, client-centred approach that treats the physical, spiritual and mental nature of the disease. We are the only drug rehab centre with this approach. We introduce our clients to the 12-step spirituality of Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous.

Following the example of Catholic social teaching we recognise the dignity of each human who is made in the image and likeness of God and loved unconditionally. Thank God we have a growing number of people who are finding long term sobriety.

As each new group of clients arrives for the 15-week programme we offer, I can’t stop thinking of Mary and the other women who are suffering and who have nowhere to go for help. At the Centre we talked about how we could help women and in consultation with the local bishop we decided to fundraise to build a dormitory for them. The bishop has donated land just beside the main centre for this, which will enable the women to attend the sessions in the centre. However, they will also need their own classroom so that they can have classes that are specific to women.

The total cost of the building to accommodate 30 female clients, with a living area and bathroom facilities along with a classroom and fencing around the site, is approximately $72,000 (€61,000). It will not be easy to raise this money in these difficult times, but I believe that God wants these women to come out of the shadows and to find recovery, and so a way will be found.

Fr Eamon Sheridan saying Mass at dawn for Easter Sunday for men taking part in the 12-step recovery programme at the Rebirth and Recovery Centre in Myitkyina.

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