“You're nobody without a piece of paper:” visibility, the state, and access to services among women who use drugs in Ukraine

Jill Owczarzak, Asiya K. Kazi, Alyona Mazhnaya, Polina Alpatova, Tatyana Zub, Olga Filippova, Sarah D. Phillips

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In Ukraine, women constitute a third of all new HIV infections, and injection drug use accounts for nearly half of HIV infections among women. Women who use drugs (WWUD) often have diminished access to drug use treatment, HIV care, and other health and social services or underutilize women-specific services such as maternal health services. While interpersonal and contextual factors diminish access to and utilization of services among WWUD, rules, processes, and bureaucratic structures also systematically exclude women from accessing services and resources. Institutions, bureaucratic processes, and instruments of legibility such as documents regulate who can and cannot access services and raise questions about “deservingness.” In this paper, we use the lens of bureaucracy to explore paperwork as a form of structural violence through its production of “legible” citizens, often through reinforcement of gender stereotypes and moral narratives of deservingness. Between December 2017 and October 2018, we interviewed 41 medical and social service providers and 37 WWUD in two Ukrainian cities. Our analysis revealed that requirements for internal passports and residency permits—the primary state apparatus through which rights to services are granted in Ukraine—compelled participants to continually render themselves visible to the state in order to receive services, despite financial, logistical and other challenges that undermined women's ability to obtain documents. These requirements exposed them to new forms of stigma and exclusion, such as reduced opportunities for employment and losing custody of children. Nongovernmental organizations, due to funding cuts, curtailed direct services such as support groups but became liaisons between clients and the state. They enforced new narratives of deservingness, such as the ability to define “good” behavior or reward social relationships with agency staff. Ukraine's current reforms to social safety net institutions present an opportunity to interrogate underlying assumptions about spheres of responsibility for the country's most marginalized and stigmatized groups.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number113563
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
StatePublished - Jan 2021


  • Access
  • Documentation
  • Drug use
  • Health care
  • Social services
  • Ukraine
  • Women

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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