March 8th is recognized as International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate the accomplishments of women across the globe, raise awareness about women’s equality, and drive change. Women are one of many groups that have faced oppression, descrimination, and unique social pressures. In order to fully appreciate the accomplishments of women, it is critical to understand the struggles that women have and still do face, such as stigma, sexual assault, physical violence, and oppression. As leaders in the addiction recovery space, we want to discuss women and some of the unique challenges women face when it comes to substance use and addiction.

Inequalities Among Substance Use

Addiction is a powerful thing. It is a debilitating, self-inflicted disease that can happen to anyone regardless of age, race, or gender. However, it does not affect every group the same. Substance abuse studies have historically observed predominantly male participants, like many other medical and mental health studies. Although substance abuse does affect men at greater rates, the lack of research on women has hid the reality that they face different challenges surrounding addiction than men do. Consequently, women have had to face more barriers than men when it comes to accessing effective treatment for substance use disorders.

A Fear of Consequences

One of the major barriers to women getting treatment for an addiction is the fear of what will happen when they ask for help. For instance, pregnant women and mothers may be worried people will think that they are an awful parent, or that they may lose custody of their children. Plus, if they are the primary caregiver in a household, then who will cook, clean, and care for their family?

Female Biology

There are biological differences between women and men that we must acknowledge in order to address inequalities women face, including the fact that women do not process all drugs the same as men. For example, women on average produce less of the enzymes our body uses to break down alcohol (alcohol dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase). Women also weigh less on average and therefore are more likely to have a lower tolerance for chemical substances. This may not seem like a big deal that women would have to overcome, but not being able to consume the same amount of something like alcohol has had a major social impact on gender equality. 

Our biological differences mean that a woman at a business dinner may not be able to safely drink as many rounds of whisky as the men in their group. If she declines the drinks then she may be peeved to not be a team player or weak. If she does take the drinks and displays adverse effects, she is somehow still seen as weak. Even worse, she may be taken advantage of physically. 

Addiction Treatment for Women

Yes, women are different from men in many ways. That does not mean women are any less deserving of quality addiction treatment. It does mean that in order to provide quality treatment for women, there needs to be a difference in the treatment options and approaches for women who struggle with substance abuse vs. men who struggle with substance abuse. Luckily, there are rehab centers that provide gender specific treatment. Women who are seeking recovery should consider looking into these programs for their best chance at a better life.