Clear link between alcohol abuse and gender-based violence, evidence review finds

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Whether there is a link  between alcohol and Gender-Based Violence (GBV) or not is a contentious issue. While opinions on the matter vary among researchers, policymakers and ordinary citizens, a recently-released evidence review raises noteworthy observations. 

The review, a collaborative effort by the Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance (SAAPA) and the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and funded by the Ford Foundation, shows that alcohol does drive GBV. The review illustrates the clear link between alcohol abuse and GBV across four sub-Saharan African countries

It does not exonerate abusers, giving them the opportunity to blame it on the alcohol, but instead shines a light on the ubiquitous presence of alcohol outlets in communities and how this relates to harmful drinking . 

Bongiwe Ndondo

The co-occurrence of harmful drinking and GBV highlighted in the report  was a key point of discussion during a Mail & Guardian webinar on 2 December 2021, hosted in collaboration with the Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance (SAAPA). Webinar partners included the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), Ford Foundation, Hlangani Institute for Development of Southern Africa, and the Soul City Institute for Social Justice. 

Moderated by Bongiwe Ndondo, Executive Director of the Hlanganisa Institute for Development in Southern Africa, the webinar themed: Can regulation of alcohol help prevent GBV? unpacked the key findings of the report Alcohol availability and GBV in Southern Africa: An evidence review published by the SAMRC and SAAPA. 

A clear link

Dr Leane Ramsoomar-Hariparsaad, a researcher at the SAMRC, presented the research. She said there was clear evidence of a link between alcohol and GBV. 

The evidence review found that men’s harmful alcohol use tripled their risk of perpetrating GBV or interpersonal violence (IPV). Women whose partners were regularly drunk were almost six times more likely to experience IPV or GBV.

The evidence review showed that the drivers of GBV exist at an individual, societal, relationship and community level. Patriarchy, poverty and a culture of violence all play a role in the problem. Childhood trauma, poor mental health, substance misuse and poor communication and conflict in relationships are all drivers of GBV. Ironically, these factors are often caused and exacerbated by alcohol abuse, poor mental health and child abuse. 

Nelisiwe Hlophe

The review highlighted that structural factors also increased the risk of GBV, for example, the alcohol outlet density and trading times in a community. In one instance, the mapping of an urban site in South Africa showed more alcohol outlets than schools. The reviewers recommended that alcohol density and trading times should be considered in the awarding of licenses. 

The report also highlighted the poor implementation of regulations and laws in sub-Saharan Africa. 

“South Africa currently has the most progressive laws around gender equality and laws related to GBV and IPV specifically. It aligns with global policy and regulation on alcohol use. Yet, South Africa continues to record heavy alcohol consumption and high rates of GBV,” the reviewers noted. 

Playing out in real life

Nelisiwe Hlophe, Senior Programme Manager at the Soul City Institute, said she had seen this play out on-the-ground. In one instance, an unlicensed tavern was situated just 200m away from a school, in clear violation of municipal bylaws. At least 10 learners from the school reported being raped by tavern patrons. 

She highlighted the role of the alcohol industry in targeting young women. “If you go to the townships, or even in our communities, you will see that a number of girls are drinking alcohol — and it makes them vulnerable,” Hlophe said. 

Lebogang Ramafoko

Lebogang Ramafoko, Chief Executive of the Tekano Atlantic Fellowship Health Equity South Africa, agreed. She said the industry had resisted tighter regulation, arguing that it could self-regulate. In the process, it sent out the message that it was “concerned” about alcohol misuse. 

“Communities don’t understand these power dynamics, with an industry that spends billions, particularly around the festive season, to make sure that we consume alcohol.” She said the industry had taken male and female “stars”, or influencers, and associated success with alcohol. 

Ramafoko said the study added to the body of evidence that communities could use “to hold those who are in power accountable”. She also raised concerns about conflicts of interest where the alcohol industry was involved, or funded research and government programmes. 

The evidence review also showed a consistent pattern across sub-Saharan Africa when it came to heavy episodic drinking. Heavy episodic drinking is drinking five or more alcoholic drinks (of 60 grammes or more) on a single occasion in the last month. 

Historical context

The reviewers also pointed out the significant historical context shared by sub-Saharan Africa — all of which were colonised at some point by Europeans. This impacted their socioeconomic circumstances and drinking behaviour, the reviewers said.

“For example, during the colonial era, ‘native’ populations in many of the sub-Saharan African countries were prohibited from drinking ‘European liquor’ because it was perceived to make them disobedient and difficult to control. In the 1900s, various new regulations were enacted to regulate drinking, primarily among native Africans, including the introduction of beer halls, and ultimately the proliferation of many illegal sheens, as well as homebrews,” the report noted.

Ramafoko  said the alcohol industry will continue targeting young people and women, “and none of that is honourable”. 

“People have a right to live, and to work, and to play in alcohol-safe zones, Ramsoomar-Hariparsaad said.

Government and officials need to show the political will to address the structural drivers of GBV. The disproportionately high numbers of alcohol outlets and trading hours outside of the national norms and standards recommendations of 2016 are central to alcohol availability in communities, making it easy to access and abuse alcohol.  Government urgently needs to engage in a process to harmonise legislation at local, provincial and national level and ensure that all communities enjoy the same rights to safety. — Sarah Evans

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