Vulnerable Populations and Inequalities in Health: The Case of Marginalized Women with Substance Abuse Problems

Author(s): M. P. Romero1
Affiliation(s): 1Researcher on medical sciences E. Direction of epidemiological and psychosocial research, National Institute of Psychiatry, Mexico city, Mexico

Vulnerable population, women, substance abuse, equity

Background: Interest in health inequalities has grown in recent years. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines them as health variations that are unnecessary, avoidable and unfair (Whitehead M, Dahall G, 2007). These inequalities are also gendered. Gender is a concept that incorporates the social factors associated with men and women’s different patterns of socialization, which in turn has to do with family roles, work expectations, types of occupation and social culture which also affect the process of health and illness. In this work we use the concept of gender quoting Ettore (2002): ‘gender is a process and an institution…As a process, gender is a part of all human interactions. Gender shapes the meaning of “female” and “male” and “masculinity” and “femininity” on cultural, political and economical levels. As an institution, gender is a part of culture just like other components of culture such as symbols, language, mores, norms, values and so on. Gender is a “stable” form of structured inequality and it is embedded in culture’ (p. 329). When women experience the damaging effects of gender whether as a social process or an institution, women are at a greater disadvantage because ‘masculinist’ (male privileging) more than gender-sensitive structures and paternalistic epistemologies predominate. In addition to gender inequalities, there are also social and economic inequalities that give rise to marginalized groups. Therefore, for vulnerable populations, ensuring healthcare coverage an access to good-quality, appropriate public and private sector services is an ongoing a challenging proposition (Ferguson 2007). Type of study: A non-experimental, descriptive, ex-post facto cross sectional study was undertaken in two women’s prison in Mexico city. A non probabilistic sample of 213 women was selected, with the following inclusion criteria: current or sometime consumers of alcohol, tobacco and drugs, aged between 18 and 65 who can read and write.

The aim of this paper is to discuss from the theoretical framework of gender perspective and vulnerable population’s literature, the burden of disease of substance abuse in vulnerable women, specifically data from a research with minor delinquents and women in prison.


Among the interviewed women 14.6% have lived in a shelter or NGO before the prison and 39.5% have lived in the street. The third part (30.5%) ran away from home at least once while being children and 21.6% live with persons different from their parents. On the day they committed the offence 41.8% were under the effects of drugs and 18.8% on alcohol. Among the drugs they used while or before committing the crime, 26.85 % had used cocaine. The most commonly reported crime among the interviewees was theft (51.6%) in different forms (non-specific/simple, qualified, aggravated, non-specified, burglary) followed by drug related offences (possession, traffic) 23.5 % and the third crime was homicide (8.5%). According to their response 43.7% reported having been in a correctional facility before.

Lessons learned:

Prison is an environment with special difficulty in the promotion of health. At the individual level, prison takes away autonomy and may inhibit or damage self-esteem. Common problems include bullying, mobbing and boredom, and social exclusion on discharge may be worsened as family ties are stressed by separation. However, imprisonment is also a unique opportunity for all aspects of health promotion, health education and disease prevention. Vulnerable groups as the women in prison and minor offenders are disadvantaged groups who would normally be hard to reach. It is the prison, therefore a prime opportunity to address inequality in health by means of specific health interventions as well as measures that influence the wider determinants of health (Haton P., 2007).

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