Alcoholism among young womenMaziyateke | Category: Opinion
As the debate on underage drinking intensifies globally, we come to terms with the fact that alcohol is no longer a problem affecting the adult population alone. In this article I investigate some of the reasons behind the excessive drinking patterns of young people in Britain and Belgium, to understand whether drinking is purely a social lubricant, or whether it is a social drug. Furthermore, I look at how over the years alcohol consumption has become both a symbol of female emancipation and confinement.
Alcohol consumption, in African tradition has long been used to regulate socially assigned gender roles; it is common in African societies for men to consume excessive amounts of alcohol to mark the birth of a child, to welcome a visitor, or to enjoy a wedding ceremony. In recent years however, according to a WHO report, ‘in some societies gender differences in drinking behaviour have grown smaller.’ Since the 1960s in the West and perhaps the 1970s for Africa, women have been more involved in the market economy and thus have access to their own disposable income and can choose to have more leisure time. A Saturday night in any African metropolis will tell you a new story; rows of independent, career-driven and hip young ladies popping champagne bottles and sipping on exotic cocktails.
A survey commissioned by the European Commission in 2010, crowned Britain ‘the binge-drinking capital’ of Europe. This means that British people consume several units of alcohol in just one sitting. At least once a week at university, there was an alcohol themed night called VodBull where white paper cups of vodka and Redbull were sold for £1 each. A £20 note later and the dance floor was something close to a scene from a horror movie. Girls sprawled across the dance floor, swimming in their own vomit, others getting sexually violated in the hallway, broken heels and private parts on free view. The general consensus is that binge-drinking among the youth is a result of the numerous restrictions that are placed on alcohol by the British government. Others argue that nightclubs and bars can only make money from broke young people by inventing these alcohol-themed nights where a shot can cost as low as 20 pence.
According to a 2006 study by CRIOC consumption of alcohol in Belgium begins at a very young age, with one in four 13 year olds admitting to be regular consumers of alcohol. This pattern is put down to the popularity of social drinking, as well as the early introduction of alcohol to children by parents, which by teenage years has turned to wine and champagne tasting. There are some clear differences in the drinking patterns between genders (40% boys and 36% girls), as well as regions (Flanders 44% and Wallonia 36%). CODE said that while data shows that on average boys drink more than girls; this difference disappears during the weekend. Furthermore, a study conducted by ESPAD (2003) showed that Belgian youth are among the Europeans who have the largest consumption of alcohol (based on frequent consumption defined as that of a person who consumed alcohol 10 times or more during the 30 days preceding the study.)
For Rwandan youth who have been living in Belgium for the past decade, there is a concern that these patterns are being transferred through a process of integration. While for both Rwanda and Belgium drink is a cultural phenomenon, from my own experience there is a slight difference in which gender it is considered to be acceptable to introduce drink to at a young age especially in a familial context. There are yet to be any social studies to specifically compare the drinking patterns between young men and women, however from a Rwandan youth perspective during the weekend the line of difference, if there is one at all is slightly blurred, as both genders engage in alcohol consumption, which on some occasions can be excessive. Worryingly, the educational attainment of some young people is deteriorating as they struggle to combine their demanding university timetable with their hectic social life. The reasons behind the excessive drinking is yet to be truly defined; while for some it may just be the wish to be free from week-long school/work stress, for others it may be a crutch to avoid facing serious psychological issues.
The blurred line between the drinking patterns of young men and women is not only common in Europe; it is happening on a global scale. While it may give the impression that alcohol consumption among young women is now a socially accepted phenomenon; there are still major stereotypes attached to the woman who will favour a pint of beer over a lady-like drink, especially among African people. As a result of these stereotypes, kitchen cupboard drinking, among women in countries like South Africa is on the rise – this is a term used to describe the person who protects their alcohol consumption image in public but lapses in privacy.
While youth is a time for expression and discovery, for young women especially, it is also a time when society will want to impose several restrictions. We may live in 21st century Europe but our core African values and traditions have not truly left us, and until then alcoholism among young African women will continue to be yet another taboo subject. From a European perspective, it is true that society has become more lenient on women that drink alcohol, however many women have a story to tell about the sugar-coated double standards they face every day.
When they spoke about equality, champions of women’s rights did not mean that they wanted us to behave like men; they wanted a more humane society where a woman was allowed to be a woman in the truest sense. It is not about seeing who does it better, but rather about having the freedom to make the right decision for you as a woman devoid of any external pressure. In the end, it is not so clear whether the consumption of alcohol has made us freer from the chains that have bound us for all these centuries.
 Centre de Recherche et d’Information des Organisations de Consommateurs
 Coordinations des ONG pour les Droits de l’Enfant
 European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs