The Forgotten Vulnerability of Female Drug Couriers

Feb 11, 2018 Opini

Today’s date, March 8, marks International Women’s Day. The concept on International Women’s Day was first proposed in 1910 at the International Conference of Women Workers by Clara Zetkin, the leader of the Women’s Office of the Social Democratic Party of Germany.[1] Today, International Women’s Day represents a global celebration and call for gender equality.[2] Among the many problems still faced in the struggle to end discrimination against women, one issue which seems yet to have received widespread attention is the involvement of women in drug trafficking as couriers.

In April 2015, Mary Jane Veloso, a Filipino woman, was nearly executed by Indonesia after being convicted of involvement in drug trafficking operation as a courier. Despite undertaking exhaustive legal efforts, Mary Jane had received no pardon, not even from President Joko Widodo. Sections of Indonesian society and the international community then urged President Widodo to intervene and prevent her execution. These efforts illustrated the power of the public as, in the final minutes before Mary Jane was due to be executed, President Widodo granted a stay of execution.

Mary Jane is just one of a long list of women exploited into becoming drug couriers. In January 2015, Indonesia executed Rani Andriani after she was caught attempting to smuggle drugs into Thailand. Then there are the cases of Mut, EYS, I and N.[3] There are no signs to suggest this long list will stop growing. In 2015, then-head of the National Anti-Narcotics Agency, Anang Iskandar, stated that in 2014 alone there were 4,297 women caught involved in drug trafficking. Generally these women were couriers, both inside and outside the country.[4] The recruitment of female drug couriers is done by various means but features a common thread – the exploitation of the vulnerability of women.

Indonesia’s drug laws, which adopt the paradigm of a ‘war on drugs’, are harsh on drug couriers and carry a maximum sentence of death. The hardline national attitude towards these individuals and laws insensitive to gender further corner women who, from the moment they are arrested, hold far poorer bargaining positions than their male counterparts because of unbalanced power relations. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) states that women who lack education; are economically disadvantaged; or are victims of violence are often exploited by drug trafficking syndicates.[5] Recruiting is done by forming personal relationships with the victims as wives or girlfriends, before exploiting their subsequent economic and psychological dependence or using threats of violence to coerce.[6]

Other common methods of recruitment by syndicates include exclusively targeting women who are poor and in need of employment, or deceiving victims into unknowingly transporting and delivering drugs. It can be said that these kinds of exploitation of women by syndicates involve systematic planning. Sulistyowati Irianto, dkk., says this systematically planned and organised recruitment of women as couriers constitutes a form of human trafficking.[7] Women are recruited and transported using threats of violence, violent coercion, deception, or entrapment through financial debt. Whether they are paid or not, this can still be categorised as trafficking of women.[8]

Through its punitive lens, the legal apparatus does not acknowledge the issue of women’s vulnerability when handling or ruling on drug cases. Sulistyowati Irianto, dkk., says when drug courier cases exceed a certain degree of seriousness according to the relevant articles of law, judges no longer take into consideration the poverty and vulnerability of the women.[9]

The threat of the death penalty or other kinds of severe punishment for female drug courier exacerbates the problems of recruitment and human trafficking, meaning women become one of the groups in society who suffer most in the war on drugs.

In this ‘war’, women who are already susceptible to exploitation face the death penalty or decades in jail because of their disadvantaged position. As such, the state must reconsider its punitive drug policy and abolish the death penalty for drug offences as an initial step in the legal protection of women. It needs to view women as victims of human trafficking rather than as the main offenders of drug trafficking. State policy and the law must be responsive to issues of gender and provide protection to women, instead of harming them.

Author: Arinta Dea Dini Singgi, Program Development Officer at Community Legal Aid Institute, is interested in the issue of women and narcotics. More work by Arinta can be accessed at

Editor: Yohan Misero

Translator: Iven Manning

[1] See to find out more about International Women’s Day

[2] Ibid.

[3] The author has intentionally left out the full names as these cases are still going in Indonesia.

[4] “4.297 Wanita Indonesia Kurir Narkoba Internasional”, Interestingly and ironically, the Indonesian government – namely The National Anti-Narcotics Agency (BNN) and the Ministry for Female Empowerment and Child Protection (PPPA)- have already recognised that women are often exploited as drug couriers, but there are yet to be  comprehensive efforts by the government to tackle this problem. See

[5] Satgas PBB untuk Kejahatan Internasional Lintas Negara dan Perdagangan Narkotika sebagai Ancaman terhadap Keamanan dan Stabilitas, “A Gender Perspective on the Impact of Drug Use, the Drug Trade, and Drug Control Regime”, Juli 2014.

[6] Khoirun Hutapea, “Pola-pola Perekrutan, Penggunaan dan Kegiatan Kurir dalam Jaringan Peredaran Narkoba Internasional”, Juni 2011, hal. 64.

[7] Sulistyowati Irianto, dkk., “Perdagangan Perempuan Dalam Jaringan Pengedaran Narkotika”, 2005, Jakarta: Yayasan Obor Indonesia.

[8] Aliansi Global Melawan Perdagangan Perempuan, “Hak Asasi Manusia dalam Pelaksanaan: Panduan untuk Membantu Perempuan dan Anak yang Diperdagangkan, 1999, hal. 11-12.

[9] Op.Cit.

This piece was first published in Bahasa Indonesia at LBH Masyarakat official website on March 8th 2016. You can visit the original piece here.

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