Multiple Disadvantage: the case for a joined-up approach to women's policies

An estimated 1.2 million women in England alone have experienced extensive physical and sexual violence as both a child and an adult. For many of these women and girls, abuse is the start of a downward spiral. The unresolved trauma from what they have experienced can leave them with very low self-esteem and mental health problems. They may use drugs and alcohol to cope with what they have been through. They may become homeless. Thousands end up involved in prostitution or in prison. Many are mothers, and their children can go on to face the same issues of abuse and marginalisation. Nearly a quarter of girls in care become teenage mothers, and their children are much more likely to be taken into care in turn.

The technical term for what these women face is ‘multiple disadvantage’, or ‘complex needs’, but neither does justice to the layers upon layers of abuse, poverty, and inequality they have experienced throughout their lives. They need specialist support to help them deal with the full range of issues they face, and the abuse and trauma that so often underpins it, but too many are unable to access it. Women’s services struggle for funding and many existing mixed services, such as for addiction or homelessness, are dominated by men, which can be intimidating and sometimes unsafe for women. Often they do not have the expertise to respond to the specific issues women face and can even make bad situations worse, with women not listened to or blamed. The end result is women do not get the help they need.

Colette experienced sexual and physical abuse as a child, and had all three of her children, the first born when she was 15, taken from her care. Her addiction, homelessness and involvement in prostitution saw violence become an everyday part of her adult life too. It was only after building trust with Manchester Action on Street Health (MASH), a women’s organisation, that she finally felt able to start her recovery and begin rebuilding her life. Without proper support, women with experiences like Colette’s can move from one crisis – trips to hospital, contact with the police - to the next, at a great cost to themselves, their families and society as a whole.

It does not have to be this way.

The government is making some efforts to address some of the issues faced by women experiencing multiple disadvantage. For example, we hope the upcoming Domestic Violence Bill being developed at the Home Office will help to recognise and address the pernicious and long-lasting impact of violence against women and girls.

We keenly await the forthcoming Ministry of Justice’s Female Offenders Strategy as an opportunity to reverse the tide of vulnerable women ending up in prison cells. We hope it will acknowledge and invest in community support and women’s centres that have been shown to be so successful in preventing women offending. The Department of Health and Social Care has set up the Women’s Mental Health Taskforce, which as Director of Agenda, I co-chair with Health Minister Jackie Doyle-Price, to tackle signs of a growing crisis in women’s and girls’ mental health.

These are all positive steps in the right direction. But they also highlight part of the problem. Women experiencing multiple disadvantage do not sit in any one government department. They cross Health, Justice, the Home Office, Education, Work and Pensions, and Local Government. This means policies that impact women experiencing multiple disadvantage, such as mental health, substance misuse, or homelessness are developed separately in their separate departments. And, unfortunately, when they are developed, they rarely consider the particular impact on women.

This needs to change and we need leadership and strategic joined-up thinking to make that happen. Agenda wants to see the creation of a cross-government approach to ensure that women and girls facing multiple disadvantage are getting the support and protection they need. Of course, at some point, we are also going to have to talk about money. Funding specialist services specifically for women and girls struggling with multiple disadvantage must be a priority. But this is not about blindly throwing more cash about – it is about strategic and effective spending.

Evidence shows that women-only services that take into account the specific issues women face, especially their experiences of abuse and trauma, can make a real difference. And they save money too. For example, modelling shows that an investment of £18m per year in the joined up support provided by women’s centres could save £1bn over five years. Yet such services struggle for funding and are constantly under threat. This is partly because funding tends to come through different departments, commissioners and authorities separately, with a focus on tackling one issue at a time. This is short-sighted and inefficient, not to mention often ineffective – and means services doing good holistic work are missing out on valuable funds.

To tackle this, we would like to see the government taking a lead by creating a central funding pot to help women and girls facing multiple disadvantage address the whole spectrum of their needs. This is not about asking for more money, (although that would be extremely helpful), it is about using existing money efficiently and effectively for the benefit of all. More holistic, gender- and trauma-informed services could make a lasting difference to hundreds of thousands of women, their families and society.

Too many women and girls in the UK live in chaotic, abusive, and unhappy environments. Ensuring they get the support they need when they need it makes economic sense, but it makes moral sense too. Colette shows that with the right support women can turn their lives around. They all deserve the chance to fulfil their potential.

Katharine Sacks-Jones is the Director of Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk.