Mona (name changed) thought her boyfriend was cool when he spurred her to try cigarettes and alcohol. Soon the kick wasn’t enough for the 22-year-old budding doctor and she moved on to hard drugs like heroin.

Months later, her parents realised that their daughter, who was studying in one of Punjab’s top medical colleges, had become a full-blown addict. They admitted her at a rehabilitation centre in Amritsar city where she is recovering now, having lost the craving.

Once a male-only problem, the epidemic of drug addiction has now gripped Punjab’s women too. With cracked lips and shrivelled bodies, they are showing up in droves at the de-addiction centres. Those who once fought for the lives of their husbands and brothers are now fighting for themselves.

Be it colleges, universities or homes – women are using hard drugs openly. Shocking revelations were made by inmates of Punjab’s first de-addiction centre, built exclusively for women, which was opened this year in Amritsar. The centre is the brainchild of Amritsar-based psychiatrist Dr Jagdeep Pal Bhatia, who has been running a similar facility for men over the past two decades.

Bhatia says most women who come to the centre are between 18 and 40 years of age. Traumatised by acts of incest, domestic violence, physical and sexual abuse, sex addiction and low self-esteem, they try to find solace in the bittersweet sting.

he psychiatrist said he noticed that many families deserted addicted women and only chose treatment for male members. Experts say the exact number of female drug addicts in the state is not known but it runs into the thousands. The development comes amid a swirling political tussle in the poll-bound state over the film Udta Punjab, based on the state’s drug menace, which has run into trouble with the Censor Board.

“Two big reasons behind a women’s drug addiction in Punjab are low-self esteem and upward mobility. The women and girls want to become fashionable and want to show that they are open. The simplest way to reach out to the rich and influential is to join the parties where hookahs, liquor and drugs are served openly,” Bhatia said. “The women start with a cigarette or a small peg of wine or liquor. The habit later transcends and they become drug addicts or hardcore alcoholics.”

Drug addiction pushes women into a bottomless abyss as they largely depend on men for the supply. The men could be their friends or the drug peddlers. As a gram of heroin costs nearly Rs 4,000, women who are unemployed or come from low-income families get pulled into a vortex of sexual abuse.

“They become slaves when they do not have money to buy heroin. They surrender themselves to the ‘friends’ or peddlers who exploit them sexually,” said Jasbir Singh, a former drug addict who is now a family counsellor in Amritsar.

The 31 drug rehabilitation centres run by the Punjab government are usually avoided by people, especially women, as they are ill-equipped and often lack basic amenities.

Critics say the administration, which continues to deny the state’s drug epidemic, seems to have turned a blind eye towards the female addicts.

“This is not true. Our de-addiction centres are open for both men and women. Anybody can come for treatment, which is largely free,” said Punjab health minister Surjit Kumar Jyani. “The state government is leaving no stone unturned to eradicate the menace of drugs.”

Namrita Gupta who has been counselling drug-addicted women in Amritsar says housewives, students and working women are all in the grip of the menace.