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Councils must focus on women’s needs to break complex cycles of abuse and poverty

Clare Jones
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Last month, the Women-Centred Working initiative published a short guide urging councils to adopt gendered ways of working and suggesting some practical starting points.

Women-centred working has grown out of decades’ experience of grassroots work with women facing the most complex and sometimes fatal combination of problems: domestic violence, sexual abuse, substance misuse, poverty, homelessness, poor mental and physical health and offending behaviour. The list of issues affecting vulnerable women is long, interrelated and can lead to inability to adequately parent and protect their children, who in worst case scenarios end up in statutory care.

These situations might seem unsurmountable but colleagues and I at the charity WomenCentre Calderdale and Kirklees and a network of pioneering women’s centres across the UK have seen how adopting women-centred principles can help women turn their lives around. Thousands of women have moved beyond troubled, chaotic circumstances as a result of accessing holistic, multi-agency community-based services in a safe environment. Support is tailored around women’s needs and importantly, co-produced alongside women. The Women-Centred Working initiative was set up to share our learning. The approach helps to avoid service duplication, making best use of limited resources and achieving multiple outcomes for partner agencies.

Much of women-centred thinking chimes with councils’ service improvement principles including collaboration, prevention and putting people who use services at the heart of their design. So how does it differ from the citizen-centred approaches councils are already taking?

Women-centred working is citizen-centred, but also responds to gendered needs. Men and boys also have gendered needs, but as women’s charity Agenda’s recent Hidden Hurt report finds, women and girls are twice as likely as men and boys to have experienced mental, physical and sexual abuse. This is why being women-centred entails trauma-informed expertise in tackling complex issues such as domestic violence. As women are more likely to be primary carers, building their confidence and capacity also helps end cycles of intergenerational abuse and disadvantage.

The Way Forward, a project for 16-24 year old women in Calderdale whose multi-agency involvement includes the council’s early intervention service, demonstrates the value of providing the right support at the right time. Evaluation found the project reduced substance misuse and other risk-taking behaviours among young women, who went on to jobs and courses, reducing demand for more costly interventions later down the line.

Being women-centred is also about recognising women’s strength as community assets, as another example shows. Oldham MBC’s early help model draws on the local Inspire Women programme to build social capital, self-help, community resilience and take women’s views on board in designing better services.

Clare Jones, national lead - women-centred working initiative, WomenCentre Calderdale and Kirklees

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