The Catholic Church has opened the first residential center offering rehabilitation to women in Myanmar battling drug addiction.

Irish Columban Father Eamon Sheridan, director of the Rebirth Rehabilitation Centre in Myitkyina, told Catholic News Service that, in Myanmar, it is “less acceptable for a woman to be an addict” and, up to now, there has been nowhere offering women rehabilitation.

Speaking about the nation’s drug epidemic, Sheridan said: “I cannot exaggerate the extent of the problem. It is hard to believe, but every family has one or two people who are addicted to heroin and alcohol. I don’t think I have met anybody who doesn’t have somebody in a spiral of addiction.”

“This is completely new for women to come to a rehab center. It is just more difficult for them,” he said.

The five women who entered the center Jan. 18 were just coming out of withdrawal when CNS spoke to Sheridan in late January. “They are already talking about how they want to get their friends to come here and how many women need something like this,” he said, noting that the center can accommodate 20 women.

Three of the five women are married, and their husbands are also addicts, so their children have grown up in abject poverty.

A woman identified as Mary, who is in her 40s, came to the center because her husband had attended a rehab program and heard about the new center for women.

She started using opium because of the pain she experienced after a beating. When the opium fields were cut down, she became addicted to heroin. Some of her six children were taken into the care of an orphanage because she could not look after them. She told Sheridan she really wanted to stop using but she did not know how.

A woman identified as Jane, 27, is a university graduate. She could not find any work and left her rural home and moved to the city, where she met up with friends who were using drugs. She started using just two years ago. She had been trying to stop but couldn’t. Then she saw on the internet about the Rebirth Rehabilitation Center in Myitkyina.

“I asked her why she wanted to stop and she said because if she didn’t, she had no future,” Sheridan said. He added that she told him: “I’ll just continue in this cycle of looking for heroin. Every morning I get up, the first thing on my mind is how do I get money to get my heroin today? I don’t want to live like that.”

Sheridan said the region of northern Myanmar near Myitkyina is the second-biggest producer of heroin in the world, after Afghanistan, and it is now also the biggest producer of methamphetamines.

In addition to the five women, the Rebirth Rehabilitation Centre is currently also looking after 33 men in rehab. Another 18 men have returned for follow-up and 16 others, who are in recovery, are volunteering in support of the new batch of clients.

Sheridan said amid the political instability and lack of work, heroin is freely available in Myanmar.

“You can buy it anywhere and everybody knows who is selling it and it is not that expensive,” he said.

The sharing of needles spreads HIV and, Sheridan said, the majority the center’s clients would be HIV-positive and have Hepatitis C.

“I think we are beginning to have a reputation of being the center that treats people with respect and dignity and recognizes it is a disease, not a sin. They need treatment just like anybody needs treatment for a disease,” he said.

Clients undertake a program centered on the spirituality of the 12-step program of Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous, depending on what their addiction is.

The center also offers information on health, the dangers of sharing needles, sexually transmitted diseases and sessions on cognitive behavioral therapy and personal development.

“It is basically helping people to discover their value as a human person. They are not bad people trying to become good. They are sick people trying to get healthy,” Sheridan said.

Sheridan said many women in addiction are trafficked and end up in prostitution to pay for their addiction. His plan is to build a vocational training center, because a lack of skills and employment means there is a high relapse rate.

“We want to try and offer some training to help recovering addicts find work,” he said.