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'Public services need a gendered view to serve women properly'

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An estimated 1 million women living in England face the daily reality of poverty and the impact of horrendous violence and abuse.

What they need, and tell us they want, is appropriate support. And the local system – the council, the health service, the criminal justice system, and other local organisations and agencies – is where they would expect to find it.

But, as Agenda’s new discussion paper Making Places Work for Women highlights, this system is failing many of them.

Too many women are falling through the gaps in local support and must deal with extensive trauma and stress on their own. Their mental health is left to deteriorate, their drug and alcohol use goes untreated, and they end up trapped in abusive relationships, homeless or involved in crime or prostitution.

They can spiral from crisis to crisis, with huge costs to them, their families and society.

Our research, conducted by The Point People, identified several issues preventing the system from working better for women.

These include poor data collection, which fails to give an accurate picture of the situation; unrealistic commissioning of services, with gender rarely thought about from design to delivery and many mixed services lacking a gendered understanding; and siloed working, which can see women rushing between different services for housing, addiction and mental health.

Most of these issues are crystallised in the example of homelessness and drug services. They are often dominated by men, meaning they can be intimidating and unsafe places for women, especially those who have experienced abuse.

Women’s childcare responsibilities mean it is hard for them to stick to rigid appointment times. Mixed environments can be unsuitable to bring children to, and some are afraid to seek help because they are concerned their children will be taken away.

The data will show that women are not using homelessness and drug services. But it will not tell you why, and this may lead to an assumption by providers that women are not in need of such services. And so women continue to be sidelined in the commissioning of homeless and addiction support.

Evidence shows that specialist women’s services, particularly those that take a ‘whole person’ approach, can have a positive impact on women and their families, but they are few and far between and increasingly struggle for funding. With a change of emphasis in the system, this need not continue to be the case.

The systems change we would like to see would mean local authorities and organisations coming together to learn more about the issues women face and taking a new joined-up approach to tackling them, pooling resources, knowledge and skills.

We are not ignoring the importance of national policy change; indeed we believe central government plays a key role in facilitating this.

But having the will and leadership locally is critical to ensuring the most disadvantaged women are not left to cope with multiple complex problems on their own.

It not only makes social and economic sense, but it is right and just that women who have been through so much get the help they need to rebuild their lives.

Jemima Olchawski, chief executive, Agenda

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