Junk Explained: Why WHO’s Global Action Plan For Alcohol Sparked Allegations Of Sexism

WHO came under fire recently after their global action draft plan against harmful alcohol use gave advice that women shouldn’t drink during their "childbearing” years.


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The World Health Organisation (WHO) has been under fire recently, after release a draft global action plan against harmful alcohol use, which seemed to give  the advice that women shouldn’t drink during their “childbearing” years. People interpreted that as WHO saying women shouldn’t be allowed to drink until menopause, and were understandably upset.

Experts have since responded to the backlash, backing the plan and denouncing the media coverage which centred on the one recommendation around “childbearing”, which they’re saying has been blown out of proportion — and apparently isn’t even an official proposal.

So, what were the actual recommendations from this draft plan? And should the renowned global organisation be held accountable for something that comes across as extremely sexist?

Quick Breakdown Of WHO’s Global Action Plan

Last week, the WHO released its Draft for Global Alcohol Action Plan 2022 – 2030, laying out important steps that the world should make to “reduce the harmful use of alcohol”.

The purpose of the action plan is to reduce the intake of alcohol per person on a global scale, since the substance has been estimated to have caused 3 million or 5.3 per cent of all deaths in 2016.

WHO noted that the phrase “harmful” was being used to describe alcohol consumption as a way to target more adequate public health awareness and intervention into the potential harm the substance can cause.

WHO pointed out that: “Alcohol remains the only psychoactive and dependence-producing substance that exerts a significant impact on global population health that is not controlled at the international level by legally binding regulatory instruments.”

In Australia, there were 1,366 registered alcohol-induced deaths in 2017, which was the highest rate in two decades. Right now, European countries continue to hold the record of the highest per capita consumption of alcohol.

In the draft version of its report, WHO called for a world No Alcohol Day or Week, detailing that “public health advocacy is more likely to succeed if it is well supported by evidence and based on emerging opportunities.”

WHO also says that the biggest challenges surrounding harmful alcohol use right now is the “limited levels of political will and leadership at the highest levels of governments, as well as the influence of powerful commercial interests in policy-making and implementation”.

So, What Did WHO Say That Offended Some People?

But unfortunately, one line from the draft has taken all the attention away from some really promising implementations.

In its ‘Advocacy, awareness and commitment’ section the plan detailed that “appropriate attention should be given to prevention of the initiation of drinking among children and adolescents.”

But it didn’t stop there and went on to specify that there also should be “prevention of drinking among pregnant women and women of childbearing age.”

Of course, most people are already aware of the huge health risks attached to drinking while pregnant – e.g. foetal alcohol spectrum disorders —  but the part about “women of childbearing age” sparked backlash.

According to WHO, a woman’s “childbearing age” ranges from 15 to 50-years-old: in other words, the biggest chunk of a woman’s life.

People are accusing WHO of suggesting alcohol should be off limits to women for their entire reproductive lives, without mentioning the same for males and presuming all women want to have children.

Pretty much instantaneously, WHO was called out for sexism and perpetuating gender stereotypes and roles, and copped a lot of heat over social media.

Britain’s leading abortion provider, Katherine O’Brien, told The Sydney Morning Herald that the advice was ludicrous, insulting and sounded like something from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. 

She continued: “It literally means that you wouldn’t be able to have a drink until you’re retired, that your first drop of alcohol would be when you hit menopause, I mean how depressing would that be? It’s just insane!”

But What Do Experts Say?

Even though the report detailed the potential harm of alcohol for women in their “childbearing” age, it didn’t actually specify that there should be an all-out ban of alcohol for women between the ages of 15 to 50.

In a statement WHO explained that the “current draft of WHO’s global action plan does not recommend abstinence of all women who are of an age at which they can become pregnant.”

“It seeks to raise awareness of the serious consequences that can result from drinking alcohol while pregnant, even when the pregnancy is not yet known.”

Dr Sadie Boniface Head of Research, at the Institute of Alcohol Studies (London) has come out in support of WHO, arguing that “childbearing” was used in “an introduction to one of the sections and is not one of the proposals”. And that “media coverage has centred on one phrase in the 33-page draft action plan.”

Side note — if you command F to search in the huge document, the phrase “childbearing” does only come up once.

“It is a shame that this one phrase in the report has hoovered up attention. This is the launch of an ambitious plan to address alcohol harm, and alcohol is the top risk factor globally for mortality among 15–49 year olds.”

She continued: “We also have to remember this is a draft report. Of course, alcohol should be avoided completely if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant.

Even Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council has recommended that women who are planning for a pregnancy or already pregnant, should not drink alcohol to protect their unborn child from alcohol related birth deficiencies.

In the past, WHO’s advocacy for safer alcohol consumption has been praised and its new global action plan draft is a pretty ambitious and positive step for reducing future alcohol harm.

Hopefully the global plan can help reduce unnecessary alcohol related deaths and lead to global leaders and major brands being held accountable for promoting safer consumption.