In January of 1994, a three-year project entitled Women and Substance Abuse (WASA) was initiated as a collaborative effort between three agencies in Moncton: the Support to Single Mothers Agency, the Advisory Council on the Status of Women and a local transition house, Crossroads for Women. The project is funded by the Health Promotion Directorate, Health Canada.
There are three phases to the project. The first year (1994) was dedicated to research, setting up treatment models for women, and educating and informing the public, the media and women about substance use and abuse. The second year will test the treatment models and continue to educate the public and various agencies on women's needs. In 1996 a provincial conference will be held enabling service providers, health professionals, and women who are substance abusers to come together to share knowledge and strategies regarding women and their addictions.
The need for such a project is pressing. Research in the past decade that has paid more attention to the effects of alcohol and drugs on women has uncovered some alarming differences in women's' experience of addiction. Women drinkers are more prone to nerve inflammation caused by the lack of Vitamin B1, are more apt to develop cirrhosis of the liver and mental deterioration at half the alcohol consumption of men, and they are at a higher risk for osteoporosis and are more likely to suffer from depression than male drinkers. Recent studies have also linked alcohol to the development of breast cancer. One study found that as little as three drinks per week increased breast cancer significantly (4).
In terms of minority women, the research shows that African-American women, ages 15 to 34, have cirrhosis of the liver rates over six times those of white women. Native American women have cirrhosis of the liver 36 times the rate of white women, and lesbian women experience a rate of alcoholism seven times higher than the heterosexual population (5).
Worldwide prevalence of fetal alcohol syndrome has been estimated between one and three per 1000 live births and may be the leading cause of mental disability in the Western world (6). The research also shows that women are the fastest growing segment of the population developing HIV infection and AIDS as a result of drug-related high-risk behaviors (7). Findings such as these signal the education that is needed within the community, not only with the women themselves, but also within the medical field, with social service agencies, and within schools.
But the whole story regarding substance abuse and women is larger. Women suffer in society from a triple stigma related to their alcoholism. First, women are victims of the same stigma attached to all alcoholics, that alcoholism affects people who are weak-willed and immoral. Most people do not believe that alcoholism is a disease. Second, women's place in society is often on a pedestal. When women fall off the pedestal, they fall much further than men since conduct acceptable for men is considered scandalous for women. Third is the sexual stigma attached to women who drink or use drugs. These women are considered sexually fair game, as in "You get what you ask for" (8).
Given the lack of access to addiction information for women, the distinct risks and particular needs that women face, and the misunderstanding and blame that exist in both addiction agencies and the general population, the WASA project identified education as one of its chief activities. The aim was twofold: to gather information from women in order to establish a larger base of research on women and addictions and to provide this information to service agencies as well as the general public; and to educate women themselves about substance use and abuse. The WASA project also intended to respond to some of the needs women articulated.