Natalie Davies blogs about violence against women, which is a major cause and consequence of gender inequality, and an important issue for the addiction field. Women’s rights activists have observed 25 November as a day against gender-based violence since 1981 in honour of the Mirabal sisters – three political activists from the Dominican Republic who were murdered in 1960. The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women was officially designated by the United Nations in 2000.

For people invested in the social progress of women, there are two key dates in the calendar: International Women’s Day (8 March); and the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (25 November). While the former has in many ways become a day to celebrate women, the latter is unmistakably focused on one of the major inequalities and sources of oppression that still exists for women.

‘Violence against women’ is an umbrella term for forms of abuse that are disproportionately perpetrated against women, and/or perpetrated against women because they are women (1 2). It includes domestic abuse, rape and sexual assault, female genital mutilation, ‘honour-based’ violence, and sex trafficking.

‘Enduring and far-reaching impact’

One of the ways of appreciating the magnitude of the problem of violence against women is to look at the statistics. The one in four women who are abused by an intimate partner in their lifetime. The one in five women who are raped or sexually assaulted. The two women a week murdered by their male partners or former partners.

Another way is to look at the enduring and far-reaching impact of violence against women. The fear of violence that women experience when they engage in normal activities, such as running through the park or taking a taxi home alone. The many unwritten rules for ‘staying safe’ that put the burden on women to not be victimised. The lifelong ramifications of trauma from violence, including physical and mental health problems, and struggles with drugs and alcohol.

By any of these measures, violence against women is a substantial societal problem. It also constitutes a major violation of women’s human rights, including the right to life, the right to liberty and security of person, the right to equal protection under the law, and the right not to be subjected to torture, or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Excerpts from the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993)

The United Nations General Assembly “[recognises] that violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of the full advancement of women, and that violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men”.

The General Assembly “[is] concerned that some groups of women, such as women belonging to minority groups, indigenous women, refugee women, migrant women, women living in rural or remote communities, destitute women, women in institutions or in detention, female children, women with disabilities, elderly women and women in situations of armed conflict, are especially vulnerable to violence”.

Preventing and eliminating violence against women

In the field of addiction, as in other sections of society, violence against women can often be regarded as a peripheral or ‘special interest’ issue; a women’s issue. Yet, research has established its role in a range of cornerstone issues, including the organisation of the illicit drug trade, and trajectory of women’s substance use problems and recovery.

The 2018 World Drug Report found that women are involved at every stage of the illicit drug trade, from cultivation and production, to transport and supply of illicit drugs. The drug trade is still, however, very much male-dominated, and can be a dangerous space for women.

While some women may choose to participate in the drug trade, many women may feel compelled to, due to economic instability or men they are in intimate relationships with. Furthermore, violence against women can be a tool to exploit, instigate fear in, and exert control over women who are already engaged in the illicit drug trade. For example, organised crime groups who are involved in drug trafficking are often also involved in the trafficking of people, including trafficking women for sexual exploitation.

In the addiction treatment sector rates of violence against women are typically higher among those with substance use problems than in the general population. This is both because violence against women, or physical and sexual abuse during a girl’s childhood, can contribute to the development of substance use problems, and because those problems can, in turn, make women more vulnerable to violence.

To effectively and appropriately work with women who have experienced violence, substance use services may need to refer women to specialist services, or work with other services to provide a complete package of care. There are also steps that treatment services can take to provide appropriate support such as providing ‘trauma-informed’ care, and ensuring that women are safe from unwanted sexual attention, harassment, abuse and violence when attending.

Violence against women also affects the drug and alcohol workforce in numerous ways. Workers are regularly exposed to stories of abuse, which can be traumatising and affect their wellbeing. Women in the workforce are also affected by violence and fear of violence in their personal lives, including in intimate relationships. They may also experience violence in the workplace, including sexual harassment, such as unwelcome sexual jokes, staring or looks, and sexual comments.

International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women marks the start of 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, which presents an opportunity to end the year thinking about how to take action (in big and small ways) to eliminate violence against women, and deal with its consequences.

The SSA website has published two new interviews for International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women 2021 – one with Dr. Karen Bailey about providing trauma-informed care in substance use services, and another with Samuel Hales, an ESRC-funded PhD student about alcohol-related sexual violence in university settings.

Recommended reading on the SSA website

  1. BLOG The Domestic Abuse Act: what we need to know
  2. BLOG Domestic abuse and the case for alcohol interventions
  3. BLOG International Women’s Day 2021: the need for gender-responsive services

by Natalie Davies

The opinions expressed in this post reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the opinions or official positions of the SSA.

The SSA does not endorse or guarantee the accuracy of the information in external sources or links and accepts no responsibility or liability for any consequences arising from the use of such information.


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