'Women CARE' in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

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VANDU Women Clinic Action Research for Empowerment Project (VANDU Women CARE) is a unique research collaboration between the BC Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health (BCCEWH), the UBC School of Nursing, and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) Women’s Group—a peer-driven, community-based organization that provides support, education and advocacy by and for women who use drugs in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Using an approach grounded in participatory action research methods and popular education, the goal of the VANDU Women CARE project is to produce new knowledge about the primary health-care experiences of women who use drugs, while supporting their health, well-being, and leadership. To date, this project has provided training, remuneration, and support for 13 VANDU Women’s Group members to design and use research tools to interview 50 women about their primary health-care experiences at community clinics. Fern Charlie, who has contributed to the study as a peer-interviewer and project Steering Committee Member, describes her experience with this project, and the value of peer-driven research by, with, and for women who use drugs:

This was the first time I have taken part in a research project but I would do it again. The only way any woman can be really heard down here is to open up and talk, talk about the social service, children, drug use. Everybody I interviewed was different; everybody had their own story, but most I could relate to because I went through it myself, like the drug use, and how some of the women lost their kids from being drug users.

People who don’t live down here in the Downtown Eastside don’t know what it’s like—but they should. Like the high numbers of Aboriginal people who have HIV. A few of my friends have HIV, a lot of the women open up to me. They don’t go around telling people, but I’d like to see them be able to talk about things, open up and not be ashamed of their HIV or when their kids were taken and they were kicked off the reserve—more or less run off. I want a forum for the Native people.

One thing that was upsetting was the subject of children who were taken from their mothers. One woman shut down, turned her back, it really did upset her. Usually she’d really open up to me but I could tell she was upset; she was crying. I want to see women get support, treatment, counselling, whatever they need to get the kids back that they lost. Because women were upset we changed the way we asked that question.

The project is about the health clinics downtown, and I don’t care too much for any of the clinics down here. Being a walk-in patient isn’t easy. Sometimes, I can go at 9 o’clock in the morning and maybe not be seen until the middle of the afternoon. At the clinics there’s a lot of waiting. If you get there too late or you miss your name, they put you down at the bottom of the list and then you’re lucky if you get in that day. It doesn’t matter if you’re sick or not.

I don’t find a whole lot of women doctors down here and when it comes to a Pap, I won’t let a man do it because of the sexual abuse I experienced as a child. I don’t see a lot of female counsellors down here either and if I do, then after a while they’re gone.

Another thing women told us about in this study is the problem they can have getting prescriptions for medication to cope with pain. When I go to a clinic downtown, I can’t get Tylenol 3s or sleeping pills because I use drugs. The one time I did get T3s down here was when I was assaulted. Some of the women were the same as me, being assaulted and abused by your partner, physically hurt. I have seen a lot of women with bruises all over their faces; they need someone to go to, not just a doctor but a counsellor. I went through that and there were not a lot of people who would listen to me. I have a doctor in a different part of town that will prescribe for me. Winter is the worst because I have to walk 20 blocks there, and 20 back. We need decent health care within walking distance.

I think this project will help women. I got into this to help these young girls and women. A lot of things I am scared to talk about, to open up myself. But when it comes to other women I will speak, because I lost a lot. I used to have a house full of kids and grandkids and once they found out about the drug use, well—what I had 10 years ago I don’t have today.

Fern Charlie is a peer-interviewer and project Steering Committee Member at the VANDU Women CARE project.