Women alcoholics on the rise in SA

2011-06-04 15:45

A decade ago they were known as “kitchen cupboard drinkers” – secret drunks. These days South African women imbibe as freely as men in public and increasing numbers end up in police vans at roadblocks.

More than 25% of drunken drivers caught at roadblocks are women, says Road Traffic Management Corporation spokesperson Ashref Ismail.

And approximately 25% of alcoholics currently attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) to seek treatment are women, adds AA spokesperson Louis*.

The increase in female drunks caught at roadblocks is particularly evident in metropolitan areas, says Ismail.

These are the areas with night clubs and office parties, he explains, where women constitute an ever increasing presence.

Louis points out that women are still inclined to indulge in “kitchen cupboard drinking” or what he refers to as the “illness of denial”.

Women still drink secretly to a large degree, he says, but they are also “emerging from the closet”.


“Because they are emancipated,” says Louis. “They are breadwinners. They work with men and they drink with men. But many of them still drink alone.”

They also find it very difficult to seek help because of the stigma,” he says.

Recent research confirms this.

A 2010 Stellenbosch University doctoral thesis on women’s “secretive alcohol dependence and experiences of accessing treatment”, authored by Liezille Pretorius, points out that women are reluctant to reveal their dependence on alcohol and seek treatment because it still carries a “severe stigma”.

And those who do seek treatment, she writes, “are forced into mixed treatment centres that have a male bias and do not cater for women’s unique treatment needs such as childcare facilities”.

Her thesis points out that men and women use alcohol for different reasons.

Women are diagnosed as dependent on alcohol at an older age. Female alcohol dependants are more likely to have a depressive illness preceding or coinciding with heavy drinking.

And women are harder to treat and stay sober for shorter periods.

She quotes research that found that women at high risk were those living with men when not married, those in part-time employment, those suffering frequent sexual dysfunction and those living with others who drink heavily.

Alcohol dependence also frequently occurs among young women between the ages of 21 and 34 who are the daughters of alcohol dependants.

Society, she says, has a lower tolerance for women alcohol dependants. It tolerates some behaviour exhibited by intoxicated men, she writes, “but if women display the same behaviour they are viewed as indecent”.

They are ostracised by family and society and the risk of losing their children also prohibits them from seeking treatment.

On the upside, Pretorius says women now constitute approximately a third of those seeking AA treatment “and the percentage is growing”.

*He declined to give his surname because it is an AA tradition for rehabilitated alcoholics to remain anonymous.

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