As chaotic scenes of crowds thronging newly re-opened liquor shops in India went viral this week, some women’s rights experts warned that moves to lift a ban on alcohol would fuel domestic violence.
From China to Italy, reports of domestic abuse have soared during lockdowns, which have left many women trapped at home with abusive partners. South Africa, where alcohol abuse and domestic violence are both major public health problems, has kept its prohibition on booze in place. But do such bans reduce domestic violence?
In Colombia, Bogota’s mayor Claudia Lopez has restricted alcohol sales to one bottle per shopper, warning that the combination of heavy drinking and quarantine could create a domestic abuse “time bomb”. Greenland has also banned alcohol sales in its capital Nuuk to reduce violence against children.
But most countries that have introduced booze bans have done so to minimise the risk of people gathering and spreading coronavirus.
India reopened alcohol shops at the weekend after shutting them on March 24. South Africa has banned alcohol since March 27. Sri Lanka and Thailand have also imposed prohibitions, but the latter has since lifted restrictions in most provinces.
Some states in Mexico have banned alcohol and many others have restricted its sale or production. Elsewhere, evening curfews, the closure of bars and social distancing rules have restricted access to alcohol.
Drinking and domestic abuse
Although the two often go hand in hand, alcohol is not the root cause of domestic violence. Domestic abuse charities emphasise that it is about power and control and is a choice an abusive partner or family member makes. Alcohol should never be seen as a cause or an excuse, they say.
However, the World Health Organisation says alcohol can be a contributing factor. It may increase the frequency and severity of violence and be more likely to result in injury. The World Health Organisation says alcohol use reduces self-control and leaves people less capable of negotiating tensions within relationships.
Excessive drinking by one partner can also exacerbate financial difficulties, childcare problems and other family stressors. Societal beliefs that alcohol causes aggression can even encourage violent behaviour after drinking, and also lead to drinking being used as an excuse for violence.
Victims interviewed in studies done around the world often mention their abusers had been drinking before an incident. In one study in South Africa about 70% of abuse victims identified alcohol and other drug abuse as the main risk factor.
But have the bans in India and South Africa had an impact? It is impossible to say. Indian charities working with victims of domestic violence say their phones have been ringing off the hook during lockdown.
Mumbai charity Sneha has seen a four-fold increase in calls with many women reporting a rise in abuse after their husbands lost their jobs. “There is no difference in their treatment of women really. They would abuse the women when they had alcohol, and now they are abusing them because they don’t,” said programme director Nayreen Daruwalla.
Four major hospitals contacted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation said the number of women seeking treatment for domestic violence injuries had not changed significantly. But physician Harish Pathak of Mumbai’s King Edward Memorial Hospital predicted admissions would increase following the opening of liquor stores. “Intimate partner violence and alcohol has a very close relation,” he said.
In South Africa, police say domestic abuse crimes are down by about 70% compared to the same period last year. But Ndileka Mandela, who helps support women in abusive relationships, said many women trapped at home may be unable to call for help.
The domestic violence figures contrast starkly with calls to the police force’s gender-based violence hotline which received 2,300 calls in the first five days of lockdown - nearly three times the rate prior to lockdown.
Mandela, who is Nelson Mandela’s granddaughter, said messages she had received asking for help had doubled. She said far more needed to be done to tackle the root causes of domestic abuse, rather than blaming alcohol.
Have previous alcohol bans reduced domestic violence? Research on the issue is scarce. The World Health Organisation cites two historic experiments that appear to have had an impact.
A community programme in one Australian town in the 1990s that limited the hours of sale of alcohol reduced the number of people admitted to hospital for domestic abuse. Restrictions introduced in Greenland in the 1980s were credited with a 58% fall in police call-outs for domestic incidents.
In India, women in several regions have campaigned for liquor bans, saying drinking fuels domestic violence and rape and leads to impoverishment with men squandering family income. A few states in India have banned or restricted alcohol sales, including Bihar in the Northeast. Although some women in Bihar say the 2016 Prohibition has helped curb domestic abuse, others say such bans push alcohol consumption underground.
This article first appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation News.