Gender-specific service for women in addiction ‘urgently needed’, says MQI

Many women so inhibited from seeking help they never engage, it says

Shame, fear of their children being removed by Tusla, and feeling intimidated in mixed-gender services are all factors in preventing women addicts access vital services, a hard-hitting report warns.

Merchants Quay Ireland (MQI), the largest voluntary drug-treatment service in the State, says a gender-specific service for women in addiction is "urgently needed".

Many women are so inhibited from seeking help at existing services that they never engage, often with “tragic outcomes for them and their children”.

In its report, published on Thursday, MQI says it is committed to opening such a service but needs State support. “Trust is a key issue for women with complex needs as they have often been on the receiving end of so much hurt,” it says.


Women with addiction, it adds, have specific health, social and other needs, including with childcare and housing. They often face specific challenges including feeling infantilised and judged because of their substance use; high rates of gender-based violence; involvement in sex work, and, co-occurring mental health issues including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress.

“It is imperative that we provide gender responsive and trauma informed services to support women with complex needs, women with or without children, migrant women, LGBTQI women, women with drug problems, pregnant and parenting women, women involved in sex work, women who may have been trafficked, and women leaving care and prison.”

A woman service-user interviewed for the report, said she “fell into drug use” around the age of 16, after a person who had sexually assaulted her eight years previously went free from court.

“That broke me. I started getting into drugs to numb the pain of the whole experience, to get me out of my head.

“I didn’t feel like getting into treatment was possible when I was in the depths of my addiction. Because of the abusive relationship I was in, I didn’t feel like I had anyone to turn to, I was full of fear. I felt so isolated. I didn’t really link in with services, but I feel like if there had been a women’s-only service, where I could have gone and talked in confidence about the situation I was in, I would have used it. Definitely,” she said.

‘More normalised for men’

Though she did eventually access treatment she found the mixed-gender environment very difficult. “It’s more normalised for men to be in addiction and to be getting help than it is for women. For women it doesn’t feel as acceptable. Women’s addiction is just not something that’s really talked about much.”

Paula Byrne, chief executive of MQI, says women in homelessness and addiction "could not be more vulnerable".

“Many are physically and sexually abused, struggle with their mental health, and face trauma after trauma. Despite the hardship of their daily lives, they are often too ashamed or afraid to ask for help.

“We are calling on the government to support the delivery of gender specific homeless and addiction services. There is an urgent need to establish a female-only wellness centre - a safe haven where women can feel welcomed, understood, and supported in rebuilding their lives.”

Senator Fiona O’Loughlin, chair of the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus, said there was “strong cross-party support for the delivery of a women’s wellness centre in Dublin” which could provide a one-stop-shop for women experiencing homelessness and addiction.

“It’s time for Ireland to really respond to women with complex needs, and ensure that they have access to safe, compassionate spaces,” she said.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times