Drug and alcohol abuse is escalating internationally with recent evidence showing that substance abuse is on the rise outside of the western industrialised world, and not only among marginalised groups.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 2011 World Drug Report noted that South Africa is a major African hub for certain drugs such as heroin and cannabis (marijuana), as well as a major producer of others, including methamphetamines. Large number of South African citizens also abuse drugs and alcohol, and the country has one of the world’s highest alcohol consumption levels per drinker.

As South Africa commemorates Women’s Month, it is important to look at one of the most dangerous – and seldom discussed – issues affecting women in the country today.

In South Africa, drug and alcohol abuse should be an issue of national concern. Yet, while production, sale and use of a number of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine and crystal meth is illegal in South Africa, it has done little to curb the use of drugs, which remains very high.

A new Gender Links study on gender-based violence in Gauteng province has found that men’s alcohol consumption was closely associated with perpetration of all forms of violence, including rape.

Alcohol is legal, widely available and relatively inexpensive, leading to high consumption among citizens. This also means alcohol is one of the main burdens of disease in the country. This measurement of mortality, morbidity, injuries and other risk factors is specific to a country: in South Africa, alcohol abuse comes in third behind unsafe sex and interpersonal violence.

All three have contributed to the country’s high HIV prevalence rate, which currently stands at 18%. The report found that due to a number of socio-cultural, economic and biological factors, the HIV prevalence rate among women is higher than among men.

Research has shown that there is a strong link between drug and alcohol use and HIV transmission. Risky sexual behaviour, such as engaging in multiple concurrent sexual partnerships (MCPs), unprotected sex or incorrect use of condoms while intoxicated are often exacerbated by substance abuse as alcohol reduces inhibitions and lowers HIV risk perception, especially among young people.

Heavy consumption of alcohol and regular binge drinking by people on anti-retroviral treatment (ART) was also linked to lower levels of treatment adherence and treatment efficacy.

Possibly the greatest negative effect of drug and alcohol abuse is that it slows down or stops emotional and psychological development, preventing people from reaching their full potential. Added to this is the burden placed on society by health care and criminal justice costs related to substance abuse, as well as the costs associated with decreased productivity in the workplace, increased HIV transmission, domestic violence, injury and death.

Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon has stated that while governments have a responsibility to counteract substance abuse, communities should also make a larger contribution, especially families, schools, civil society and religious organisations. Businesses can help by providing legitimate livelihoods while the media can play a role in creating awareness of the dangers of abuse.

While the government is finally attempting to end the scourge of drug and alcohol abuse, the struggle to change public attitudes and behaviours is only beginning. 

Tafadzwa Sekeso is a Zimbabwean journalist. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service special series for Women’s Month.