International Women’s Day and Harm Reduction: Why should we care?

copyright Michel Collado Toro

The first time I participated in an International Women’s Day activity it was 1992, I was a college sophomore and it blew my mind. Women of all shapes and sizes, colors, gender expressions or identities, Trans and cis marching together, chanting, sharing and occupying public space from which we traditionally had been kept out or in the margins. It was both an eye opening and empowering experience. But it also made me angry, because 90-something years after the first International Women’s Day manifestation, we were still fighting for justice and equality, for control over our lives and bodies.

Since that first experience, as a feminist, I have participated and/or organized International Women’s Day activities, and spoken or presented at panels commemorating the day where we also recognized the importance of shedding light to the struggles of women of color, immigrant and Trans women, and poor women. And yet I believe something that is still missing is acknowledging and openly addressing the damage caused by the colonialist-capitalist-hetero-patriarchy to the lives of women who engage in sex work, use drugs, or have been part of the prison industrial complex. We have left out those voices from the dominant mainstream discourse. As a believer and practitioner in harm reduction and a feminist, I believe it is crucial to call attention to that particular intersection.

Statistics show that women of color are more likely to be penalized and criminalized for drug violations if we compare them to white women engaging in similar activities. According to Andrea Ritchie from her book Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, from 2010 to 2014, women’s drug arrests increased by nine percent while men’s decreased by almost eight percent. Most of those arrested were black and Latino women. We know this misguided War on Drugs is a war on people of color, poor people, but mostly it is a war on women.

The War on Drugs also serves to perpetuate the prison industrial complex, which under the capitalist system has become extremely profitable for a selected few. Such profits come at the expense of communities and people of color. The United States has the largest prison population in the world, about 2 million people are incarcerated in many of the 100 private prisons across the territory. A study from the Women and Criminal Justice Institute (2009) states that over the past three decades the number of women in prison has grown over 800%. Over 56% of the prison population are women incarcerated for non-violent offences and of those women of color made the majority of women in custody.

As we have established, most of those who sit in those prisons are folks (primarily women of color) convicted of non-violent crimes, facing long sentences for drug possession of minuscule quantities of drugs. This sentencing is also racialized. Despite Obama’s reduced mandatory minimum sentencing for crack-related offences, we know that sentencing still remains disproportionately higher among people of color for crack and marijuana, drugs that are often associated with black and brown people. “Three strikes and you are out” laws profile and target people of color.

Prisons also profit from the slave labor of their inmates, who get paid almost nothing by major corporations to sew our jeans, t-shirts, raise the fish we eat, or manufacture the cutlery we use at fast foods restaurants. Prisoners also serve as telephone operators and telemarketers. Some companies associated with exploiting prison laborers are: Whole Foods, Starbucks, Wendy’s, Koch industries, Johnson and Johnson, McDonalds, Procter and Gamble, AT & T, UPS, Sprint, Verizon and ConAgra Foods among others (

The U.S. capitalist system NEEDS to perpetuate the racialized War on Drugs to continue to feed bodies to prisons where cheap slave labor serves as the backbone for corporate profiteers. They benefit from the exploitation and abuse of inmates, and earn even bigger profits at the expense of all the brown and black bodies being caged. We mustn’t forget most of those brown and black bodies belong to black and Latino women.

The prison industrial complex, fueled by the war on drugs, hurts communities. Harm Reduction is one concrete way we can begin to address this toxic system as we continue to seek practical and realistic avenues to heal. For this to happen, we must begin to look inside our movement and realize how it perpetuates the racism and misogyny of the larger structure. If those of us in the harm reduction movement are not intentional about working from a paradigm of racial justice, we will continue to perpetuate the same pernicious attitudes, beliefs and actions of the broader system we are enmeshed in. We are part and exist within that larger structure and we must acknowledge that reality. We must engage in a process of self-reflection and action if we want to undo the damages that this racialized War on Drugs has caused our communities, particularly to brown and black women.

As long as women of color are underrepresented, silenced and rendered invisible in our movement as leaders, as long as women of color are exoticized or tokenized, as long as we continue to hold all white male panels or discussions, as long as we continue to uphold (white) men and women as experts who can speak directly to the experience of TRANS of CIS women of color, we continue to perpetuate the same exact harms we should be fighting against.

Every March 8th, women across the world come together to reclaim, redefine, and resist the damage caused by the colonialist-capitalist-racist-heteropatriarchy. The Harm Reduction movement should not be absent from this day and from subsequent conversations. This March 8th I plan to STOP and strike. I plan to take care of myself and others. I plan to continue to call in my fellow harm reductionists to have conversations to address the harms experienced by women of color outside/inside this movement. Finally, I hope March 8th, 2019 there is a consolidated and organized response that comes from the harm reduction community.

Este 8 de marzo y todos los demás días nos queremos vivas, libres, feministas, rebeldes y combativas.

March 8th and every day after that we want ourselves free, alive, feminist, rebel and combative. We demand an end to the war on drugs and the dismantling of the pernicious prison industrial complex.