This week saw the launch of the Third National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual & Gender-Based Violence 2022-2026. The strategy took more than a year to complete and there was wide consultation, in which AAI took part. The Strategy’s goal and guiding mission is clear: Zero Tolerance of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, and has an extensive implementation plan attached.
Given the care and time that was taken to develop this strategy, it is difficult to understand why alcohol is not mentioned, even once, in either the strategy or the implementation plan.
Decades of global research and evidence confirms that alcohol use increases the likelihood of intimate partner violence and sexual violence towards women.
Alcohol use significantly increases the occurrence and severity of domestic abuse and the link between alcohol consumption and partner aggression likely increases in countries where heavy episodic drinking is the norm – as it is in Ireland.
There is a growing body of research on trauma among people who use substances, showing that women who use substances have suffered multiple traumas throughout their lives, often stemming in childhood and leading to re-victimisation in adulthood through domestic abuse. Therefore, women who experience domestic abuse are also at much greater risk for alcohol and other substance use problems, because of the trauma they have suffered.
According to the Saol Project report ‘In Plain Sight’, at least 11,000 women in Ireland struggling with addiction are also experiencing domestic violence, with almost 50,000 having endured these simultaneously at some stage in their lives. The authors of this report wrote: “Women who endure violence in their homes and who use substances are unseen”.
Are these women and their stories too complex to fit into this new strategy? Why does it not speak to the clear and comprehensive research that shows heavy and binge drinking contributes to increased risk and severity of violence in intimate relationships?
Recently published Australian research demonstrates that where an abuser has an alcohol or other substance use problem, it makes the situation more complex as women may believe that they can ‘fix’ the alcohol problem that that this can obscure the recognition of abuse and complicate their ability to leave. Research also demonstrates that for some women, whose partner’s alcohol use is inter-connected with repeated cycles of abuse, drinking can act as a signal for the potential for violence, and thus a tool of control.
In the US, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) classifies domestic abuse as a serious public health problem. An excellent technical package brings together an evidence-based set of prevention strategies “with the greatest potential to prevent intimate partner violence (IPV) and its consequences across the lifespan.” It cites alcohol 29 times in respect of prevention work, for example: Modifying the physical and social environments of neighbourhoods as research shows that alcohol outlet density, defined as the number of locations where alcohol can be purchased, has been consistently linked to higher rates of IPV.
It highlights intervention services that may include counselling, health promotion, patient education resources, referrals to community services and other supports tailored to specific risks and preventative measures like healthy relationship programmes for couples. And, it doesn’t shy away from the presence of alcohol in sexual violence that occurs at night and states that research focused on engaging bystanders has shown that efforts to increase bystander efficacy are beneficial in alcohol and drug use reduction. It also references alcohol in respect of disrupting the developmental pathways toward partner violence, for example through proven family therapy interventions for at-risk young people who may go on to be perpetrators themselves.
Reducing alcohol use is recognised by the World Health Organization as an important strategy for reducing violence against women. This includes approaches such as challenging social norms that trivialise men’s harmful drinking and behaviours, and advocating for gender-informed alcohol policy changes that reduce men’s problematic drinking patterns, create safer drinking environments and cultures for women and men, and prohibit advertising that reinforces gender inequity and masculine heavy drinking cultures.
Alcohol Action Ireland (AAI) very much welcomes that children are a prominent feature of the new strategy. Again it is something we advocated strongly for and this is to be welcomed.
AAI has been the lead NGO in bringing the concept of ‘Operation Encompass’ (OE) to the attention of the department of children, and we are pleased to see its reference within the strategy’s accompanying Implementation Plan. OE is a collaboration between the Gardai and schools – an early warning system whereby Gardai notify schools if they have attended a home because of domestic abuse.
AAI advocates for what is essentially an intervention around domestic abuse because we know that children living with problem drinking at home will benefit from it. We recognise the intersectionality of these issues and have used decades of comprehensive research to arrive at our conclusions on these matters. Bearing witness to domestic abuse is an adverse childhood experience (ACE) that can cause problems into adulthood – as is living with problem alcohol use in the home. When both occur together, as they frequently do, the risk of harm to children increases.
AAI understands that alcohol and drugs can never be used as an excuse for domestic abuse, but to ignore them as risk factors for both people who experience domestic abuse and perpetrators, is to sanitise people’s lives and refuses to recognise the complexity and overlapping issues that perhaps do not fit neatly into boxes or departmental remits.
Domestic abuse is a public health issue associated with several risk and protective factors. Alcohol is one of those risk factors that cannot be ignored, especially in a society where hazardous and harmful drinking is the norm.