Women alcoholics on the rise in Delhi, and across India
When a sexagenarian wobbled up to the podium at the Frank Anthony Public School in Lajpat Nagar on Saturday, clad in a brown saree, a beige button-down cardigan and sporting a bindi, like every other Indian grandmother you meet in India, the words out of her mouth seemed misplaced.
“I am Rukmini*, and I am an alcoholic”.
Rukmini, who has been sober since May 1995, is one of the 30-35 women who are part of the all female Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) group, Shakti, in Delhi, and played a major role setting up the group.
According to members of Shakti, the Delhi group has the highest number of women as compared to similar groups of other states. This raises the question: have the number of women consuming alcohol in the national capital increased?
Female drinkers in Delhi
According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), in the decade between 2005-2006 and 2015-2016, the percentage of men and women who consumed alcohol in India and the percentage of the male population in Delhi who consumed alcohol has reduced. However, the percentage of women in Delhi who consumed alcohol has gone up from 0.4% of the female population in 2005-2006, to 0.7% in 2015-2016.
Other states like Chandigarh, Goa, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh have also seen a rise in women drinkers, and in some of these states the proportion is higher than that of Delhi.
So what brings out more women in Delhi to seek help? Is it because it is easier to get it in Delhi than in other states? And are these women from all walks of life?
Stigma around alcoholism
For 55-year-old Neha*, who has now been sober for 18 years, drinking was a “private” affair.
“I would get sloshed. But I would do it in the privacy of my home because I did not want to be shamed for it. I was the mother of three daughters, and I felt people would question my morals, values and character if I got drunk in public. Men were allowed to drink. It was an accreditation of their masculinity if they drank. It is not the same for women,” said Neha, who had started drinking to cope with an abusive marriage.
According to Dr Samir Parikh, a psychiatrist at the Fortis Hospital, there are strong stigmas attached to all mental health issues, and alcoholism is no different. However, what sets it apart is that comes with the added baggage of a gender bias against women.
“I would go as far as to say that around 90% of the people who admit they have a problem and seek help are men. Even if a woman is ready to admit she has a problem, she may not get the help she needs because she will be shamed for it,” said Dr Veena Kapoor, former president of the Indian Association of Private Psychiatry in Delhi, and a practising psychiatrist in south Delhi.
It seems that the younger lot are able to accept the disease because of increased information. It may still be an uphill task for the older generation to accept the problem, as shown in the case of 26-year-old Liya, the youngest of the group, when she told her mother-in-law to be about her addiction.
“She jumped out of her skin. She kept telling me how they came from a ‘simple’ ‘good’ family. I don’t think she could even fathom it,” said Liya, who first started drinking at the age of 13.
Priya*, 29, had vowed that she would never touch alcohol after growing up watching her alcoholic father. However, when she was 17, her father sobered up, and Priya had her first taste of a cocktail – a mojito.
What had first started as a “social lubricant,” alcohol soon started to dictate her life. Priya hit rock bottom when she had a blackout and fell from the second floor balcony and had to be hospitalised.
She went into recovery when she was 23, and has not had a drink since. She now volunteers with AA and travels around to help create more awareness about the problem and the programme.
“It is not that Delhi has a bigger problem. I have been to north eastern states, where almost every second or third house has a female alcoholic. It is also because some of these states are matriarchal. In Delhi, I think we are just more accepting, which makes it easier for women to seek help. I remember my mother was not ashamed when I had to check in to rehabilitation centre. We did not shout it from the rooftops, but she was more concerned about my well being than what others would think,” she said.
For 37-year-old south Delhi girl Kritika*, who has now been sober for around two and a half years, the stigma is a matter of the past. “There is no stigma anymore, at least I have not faced it in my circles. You go to Hauz Khas Village right now, and you will see how many people are getting drunk. So people are used to drinking problems. Addiction is a pathological dependence on a substance. If anyone is going to stigmatise that, you are destroying other people’s lives,” she said, while admitting that she may be afforded the luxury because of her socioeconomic background.
(*Names changed to protect identity)