Who do WHO think they are, controlling women’s drinking?

August 5, 2021

Collage by Ollie with images by Luizclas at Pexels

Olivia Opara challenges new alcohol action plan that reduces women to little more than reproduction vessels

News broke in June that the World Health Organization (WHO) had released a statement regarding alcohol consumption amongst women. However, what brought an onslaught of outcry and disgust across social media was the suggestion that, “Women of childbearing age should be ‘prevented’ from drinking alcohol.”

I was emotionally triggered when I saw this headline. As a young woman who has had her body policed from a very young age by family, friends and strangers, coupled with reproductive health issues, the WHO’s ‘Global alcohol action plan 2022-2030’ felt like a direct attack.

It’s important to understand that this was not aimed at just older women. For younger women, who are still grappling with their identities, health and womanhood, this plan will only add to our confusion.

As pointed out by some on social media, the plan seemed to be mainly focused on women and the effects it can have on pregnancy. Clare Murphy, Chief Executive of British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) commented on this in a BPAS press release:

“It is extremely disturbing to see the World Health Organization risk hard-won women’s rights by attempting to control their bodies and choices in this way. By treating all women – for 40 years of their lives – as little more than vessels, the WHO reduces women to little more than their reproductive capabilities.

Currently, there is no consensus regarding whether low to mid-level alcohol consumption during pregnancy is harmful, so to extend this messaging back into the ‘pre-pregnant’ period, regardless of individual pregnancy intention, is completely absurd.

The narrative that women need to be stopped from posing a risk to foetuses – even those which do not exist – is used around the world to surveil and criminalise women making decisions during pregnancy.”

Why is there an air of control over what women can and cannot do? Why do I have a sense of underlying misogyny?

As rightfully pointed out by Murphy and others, the WHO has disregarded the fact that there are women who cannot have children and there are those of us who do not want children.

The justified reaction from women predominantly has led me to dive into the WHO’s draft alcohol action plan.

What did WHO’s action plan draft actually say?
According to a report by Full Fact, a charity that aims to fight ‘misinformation’, WHO told them that the news items about their draft plan weren’t accurate and said that “it does not recommend abstinence for all women of childbearing age.”

In their draft plan, WHO states that “appropriate attention should be given to the prevention of drinking among pregnant women and women of childbearing age.”

Full Fact commented that it was not exactly clear what ‘appropriate attention’ means. However, the WHO told us the draft “does not recommend abstinence of all women who are of an age at which they could become pregnant.”

So, if the abstinence of all women who are of ‘childbearing age’ is not being recommended then I still ask, why is there an emphasis on women? Why is there an air of control over what we can and cannot do? Why do I have a sense of underlying misogyny?

The suggestion that we are just vessels for child reproduction is incredible misogyny

There was an increased backlash against the WHO, as many feel women’s bodies are being policed yet again and we’re being reduced to just our reproductive capacities.

Given the rise of gender-based violence against women and girls across the world, one would think that WHO would be more mindful of how they approach women’s health issues.

I feel that the WHO has washed over the bodily autonomy of women, and the suggestion that we are just vessels for child reproduction is incredible misogyny. What is even more disturbing to me is that they insinuate the policing of girls as well.

Childbearing-age explored by Healthline here is defined as when a girl starts her menses and this can happen from as early as eight. Also see information from the NHS here. According to reports by Office of National Statistics though, “A woman’s childbearing is assumed to start at age 15 years and end at the age of 45 years.”

With everything that young people, especially young women and girls, go through, this draft alcohol action plan feels nothing short of a further act of violence against us.

It reinforces stigma towards women with reproductive and gynaecological issues and is an attack on our autonomy and our sense of self as individuals beyond our sex and potential motherhood.

I believe the WHO should rethink its approach towards tackling alcohol use and take a step back from focusing purely on women. The WHO should take into conscious account that men are very much active players when it comes to reproduction.

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