The role of alcohol in domestic and sexual violence

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As Ireland prepares a third National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Strategy, Alcohol Action is advocating that the role of alcohol in domestic and sexual violence can no longer be ignored due to the weight of evidence of the intersection of these issues. 

This is a view shared internationally with the World Health Organisation stating that public health agencies have a central role to play in the prevention of such violence including addressing the role of alcohol.  

Strong evidence base 

A myriad of international studies – many of which are cited in AAI’s submission to the  Department of Justice consultation on the Third National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence – reveals alcohol’s role and sets out why it must be tackled as part of a comprehensive strategy to prevent domestic abuse and indeed to deal with the fallout. 

In Ireland, the scale of domestic abuse was reported in a study by the National Crime Council in association with the Economic and Social Research Institute. Findings from this survey in 2005 indicated that alcohol was involved ‘some of the time’ for 44% of respondents, ‘always’ for 27% of respondents and ‘never’ for 29%. As noted by the authors, ‘alcohol use may be more likely to lead to injury, so its role in triggering domestic abuse needs to be taken seriously’. 

Additionally, a substantial body of research demonstrates the association between substance use and the perpetration of intimate partner violence. Studies show that a large proportion of men attending services for alcohol and/or drug treatment, have perpetrated intimate partner violence at some point in their lives, and that women who are victims of domestic abuse are more likely to use substances to cope than those who are not. 

Alcohol also plays a prominent role in sexual violence. The 2002 Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (SAVI) report by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre noted that: ‘Alcohol was involved in almost half of the cases of sexual assault that occurred as an adult,’ and  ‘Of those that reported that alcohol was involved, both parties were drinking in 57 per cent of cases concerning abuse of women, and in 63 per cent of cases concerning abuse of men’. More recently a 2020 survey from the Union of Students of Ireland reported that two thirds of females and 70% of males reported that the perpetrator had been using alcohol and / or drugs just prior to the incident. Three quarters of female and male students said they themselves had been using alcohol and/or drugs just prior to the incident. 

Yet despite the evidence linking domestic abuse and alcohol, the previous national strategies for the period 2010-2021 for Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence were silent on the role of alcohol or sought to address how it intersects with both the victim and the perpetrator’s lives. 


Implications for children 

It is also imperative that children feature in the forthcoming strategy in terms of prevention and the amelioration of the serious adverse children experience of domestic abuse.  

Research shows that children living with domestic violence are at an increased risk of abuse, and developing emotional and behavioural problems. A study involving eight countries reported that the prevalence of alcohol’s harm to children, using an indicator of substantial severity (two or more harms), was second highest in Ireland after Vietnam, and was significantly higher than in Australia. 

Furthermore, this risk increases when both substance use and violence coexist in the family. There is a considerable body of research which shows children who grow up in families where there is domestic violence and/or parental alcohol or drug misuse are at increased risk of significant harm (Cleaver et al 1999Harbin and Murphy 2000; Velleman and Orford 2001; Kroll and Taylor 2003Humphreys and Stanley, 2006). 


What can be done? 

Collect data 

Alcohol Action Ireland believe priority must be given to collate data consistently in relation to alcohol use in the context of domestic, sexual or gender-based violence for three reasons: 

  • Data of alcohol involvement in domestic and sexual violence in Ireland is essential to understand the scope and extent of the problem.
  • Data can be used to design and deliver targeted prevention programmes and policies 
  • Adequate and appropriate data collection allows service providers to monitor trends in relation to alcohol consumption in incidents of sexual violence and thus to tailor programmes and evaluate the services’ effectiveness. 

 Screen for domestic abuse 

A shared model of care between alcohol and other drug services, mental health services, domestic abuse services and child protection services, would ensure that people are screened in a uniform way across all services to identify and highlight abuse concerns. Trauma-informed services would also assist in this regard. For example, if all frontline services dealing with vulnerable children and adults were trauma-informed, it would be in-built into the service to pick up on other issues at play and to ensure that the correct referral is made. 

Recognise children as victims in their own right within the strategy 

This would ensure that the harm they are experiencing is dealt with appropriately and in a timely fashion. Public information campaigns that highlight the damage domestic abuse can cause a child would assist to educate parents and professionals and society at large about the lasting damage experiencing or witnessing domestic abuse can cause. 

Given the scale of this issue and the damage it causes, it is clear that more research, data collection and policy strategies are urgently required. Government can no longer ignore the elephant in the room – alcohol is a serious factor in domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.