Time for fathers to lead the way in changing attitudes to drinking within the Punjabi community

Professor Sarah Galvani | November 2021 | 9 minutes

Drinking alcohol within the Punjabi culture is embedded in history and passed down through generations.

But increasingly, evidence suggests that cultural attitudes around drinking need to change as the number of people dying from liver disease is increasing.

Practice-based reports from the frontline of hospital-based alcohol services found that Punjabi men, in particular, were presenting to hospital with liver disease that was often advanced and yet could have been prevented. As a result, our research with a Punjabi community in the West Midlands sought to identify how best to support current and future generations to minimise the harm from their drinking.

We set out to hear a range of views from practitioners, community leaders, women and young people to understand what support was needed. Some of the young people said they learn about drinking from their parent’s example but it wasn’t a topic that was easy to talk about with their parents, particularly if they had a strong Sikh faith. Inherent in the conversation was an understanding that the religious teachings of Sikhism forbid alcohol and that this would impact on the young person’s ability to talk to parents about it.

At the age of 10-14, they were also aware of its negative impact on the family

This tension between religious belief and the ability to talk about alcohol and alcohol’s negative impact within the family (and community) was mirrored at leadership levels within the community during our research. With few exceptions, community leaders were primarily men who, understandably, were suspicious of white services (and researchers) developing racist stereotypes. This led to a denial of any problem drinking within the Punjabi community and an insistence that ‘real’ Sikhs do not drink. Yet we know this is untrue.

The young people in the research were also clear about the ‘unfair’ gender divisions in respect of alcohol consumption whereby men and boys could drink but women and girls could not. But, at the age of 10-14, they were also aware of its negative impact on the family. They spoke of wives leaving husbands who drank, rejection of the person by their places of worship, and drinking as a response to stress and depression. They were also clear about the reputational impact for the family:

"If he [sic] goes into a Gurdwara it could affect his religion because people might say, he is Sikh but look at what he is doing. It might bring embarrassment onto the family. It could bring shame."

While religious organisations have a role to play in changing drinking culture, our research revealed tensions between different community Gurdwara and their responses to people drinking alcohol. The clear tensions between culture and religion are so deeply rooted and will therefore need to be side stepped while debate continues because the need for change, is paramount. The lives of future generations depend on it.

From listening to the young people in our research this change needs to be led by parents

So, who needs to lead the change? From listening to the young people in our research this change needs to be led by parents. Or more specifically, fathers. Fathers have vested interests in their children living long, happy and healthy lives and are usually the parent who is modelling the drinking behaviour. While women are often the change agents, the visibility of men and their cultural relationship with alcohol requires them to come to the fore.

Visible leadership within the community must move against cultural norms whereby alcohol consumption equates to good hospitality and family status is enhanced by the quality (and cost) of the alcohol provided.

So what can fathers do? The insights from the young people, women and faith leaders in our research suggest there are a range of actions that could be taken forward to reduce the harm caused by alcohol. However, for these to be successful, they need to be adopted and developed by Punjabi fathers themselves with a view to protecting their children from future alcohol-related harm. These include:

  • Establishing a network of like-minded fathers for support
  • Teaching children about the history of drinking in Punjab and the need for cultural modernisation and change in relation to alcohol consumption
  • Educating their children about the impact of alcohol on their mind and bodies
  • Talking to their children about the impact of alcohol on the family and relationships
  • Discussing drinking in moderation
  • Committing to leading by example in relation to alcohol consumption by reducing their alcohol use.
  • Modelling hospitality (at home, at weddings, at celebrations) that is not alcohol-focussed
  • Encouraging the early accessing of support for people needing help to change their alcohol use.

On a final note, while men’s drinking is culturally acceptable in the Punjabi community, less is known about women’s drinking or the additional stigma and belief that ‘aunties’ don’t drink. They are likely to be a hidden population as a result and future work in, and with, the community needs to pay closer attention to women’s alcohol use.

Support and information

Sikh Recovery Network provides a confidential Sikh Recovery Helpline for people concerned about their drinking: 0333 0064414.

Alcoholics Anonymous runs some specific meetings for minority ethnic groups. For example, there is a meeting in Handsworth, Birmingham on Thursdays at 8pm where the language is advertised as 'English/Punjabi'. For our more about availability in your area.

Find out more about people’s experiences of drinking within the Punjabi Community.

The Sikh Helpline has produced some information about alcohol and other substance use among the Sikh community. Find out more at: Substance Abuse Archives - Sikh Helpline UK. Watch a podcast on young people and alcohol at: Alcohol awareness Sikh helpline podcast.

Nishkam SWAT is a London-based charity that is looking for people with experience of drinking problems to join them as Project Recovery volunteers.