Police-Community partnership to prevent HIV, promote public health and protect human rights of people who use drugs in Nepal

Harm reduction as an approach provides a framework for rights-based policing that enhances police legitimacy, community relationships and intersectoral collaboration.

NL Today

  • Read Time 3 min.

Kathmandu: Harm reduction is grounded in justice and human rights. It focuses on positive change and on working with people without judgment, coercion, discrimination or requiring that they stop using drugs as a precondition of support.

Harm reduction as an approach, therefore, provides a framework for rights-based policing that enhances police legitimacy, community relationships and intersectoral collaboration. Police and public health share the same desired outcomes: safe and healthy communities. For police, the harm reduction philosophy and related interventions have many benefits. The interventions save lives and prevent blood-borne infections. They also improve the health, safety and well-being of police. 

It is against this backdrop, and after years of advocacy led by Recovering Nepal–a peer-led community network of people (and organizations) who use drugs–Nepal seems set to move from “harmful policing to harm reduction policing”.    

In Nepal, like many other places in the world, the intersection of injecting drug use and sex work once fueled the HIV epidemic. Stigma, discrimination and law enforcement actions built on draconian drug policies were amongst reasons that contributed to this.

Two decades later while Nepal has made progress in recognizing the need for including harm reduction as part of its drug control measures grounded historically in demand and supply reduction; many people who inject and use drugs continue to experience negative interactions with the police and, as a result, are over-represented in criminal justice systems, prisons and compulsory drug treatment centers. This happens because the production, trafficking and use of some drugs are illegal and police are tasked with enforcing the law to prevent “possession” of any kinds. Nepal, once a pioneer of harm reduction programs in South East Asia, at the core of its national HIV response, recognized that drug use has implications for individual and public health, and these harms must be reduced as a fundamental step toward ensuring the human right to health. 

The Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of Nepal, was amongst the first in the South East Asia region to include Harm Reduction as a policy over 15 years ago.

Things have changed over the last decade along with change in donor priorities, policy and legislative reforms,  the federalization context, the dynamic change in the drug use patterns itself and amongst the traditionally known community groupings of people who use drugs–from adult male (only) to women and young people who use drugs.

Despite these shifts, people who use and inject drugs in Nepal still report of being targeted and searched by police, as well as experiencing harassment, violence, and arbitrary detention at the hands of the police. These types of police practices increase the vulnerability of HIV acquisition and onwards transmission and are not conducive to access and retention in care for HIV and other related health services for people who use and inject drugs.

Nepal Police with support from Recovering Nepal is discussing decriminalization of drug use as a critical enabler for an effective HIV and public health response in line with recommendations and guidance from the WHO and the Global Fund.  There is a greater recognition amongst the police for the need to foster partnerships with the community of people who use drugs, in pursuit of creating a rights-and health-affirming environment. 

To develop, strengthen and sustain these first yet critical steps, a first of its kind induction training was organized for newly recruited Police Inspectors. The induction training includes a module focused on harm reduction based policing which is incorporated within the overall induction training package for Nepal Police under the aegis and guidance of the Ministry of Home Affairs of Nepal and technical support from Recovering Nepal through its community members. The Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of Nepal, was amongst the first in the South East Asia region to include Harm Reduction as a policy over 15 years ago. However, due to bottlenecks in implementing the same, the concept was never fully institutionalized or implemented through the existing systems. 

Fifteen years later, the first training finally happened last week and included a field visit to a community-based harm reduction intervention–SPARSHA Nepal-which helped reinforce that “while protecting public health is not the primary function of the police, operating within a human rights framework that improve health and well-being is part of progressive and effective policing practice”.  

Deputy Superintendent of Police in the Narcotics Control Bureau of Nepal Police Apil R Bohara, the leadership of Ministry of Home Affairs and most importantly the community members represented through Recovering Nepal have helped Nepal see new dawn that will hopefully promote “Police and Community Partnership to Prevent HIV, Promote Public Health and Protect Human Rights of People Who Use Drugs in Nepal.”

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