Gender inequality is an inescapable reality. Women in the UK are on average poorer, more likely to be abused, more likely to experience mental health problems, less likely to be represented in politics or leadership positions in the media or in firms, more likely to have unpaid caring responsibilities, and more likely to face discrimination as parents than men. Almost every aspect of life is affected by inequalities based on gender.
Women (and men) have been fighting against gender inequality for centuries. Since the middle of the last century, and the advent of popular feminism in particular, some great strides have been made. We have won the vote, equal pay legislation, an end to legal marital rape. Grassroots organisations have created a vital network of specialist services for women who experience domestic and sexual violence, although these are increasingly under threat. Continued activism aims to ensure women are represented everywhere from banknotes to the A-level politics syllabus.
But still, women and ‘women’s issues’ are not yet mainstream. ‘Women’s issues’ are defined narrowly, with a focus on the pay gap or abuse for example, without considering how gender combines with other forms of inequality to shape women’s actual lives.
But gender is central to the way other forms of inequality work in practice. There is a group of women in our society at the sharp end of many different kinds of inequality. These women experience gendered violence and abuse as children, and it continues into adulthood. The abuse puts them at high risk of experiencing mental health problems, and many turn to drugs and alcohol to cope. Too many end up homeless, involved in prostitution, or in prison.
When women experience disadvantage they experience it in specific ways because they are female. Being a homeless woman is qualitatively different to being a homeless man, for example. Women are more likely to enter into unwanted sexual partnerships to keep a roof over their heads, and less likely to sleep rough for fear of being attacked.
Yet many of the services in place to provide support are often designed around men as the default service user. This doesn’t respond to the fact that women are not only homeless, they are female and homeless: a minority in support services and at risk of gendered violence on the streets. They are not just mentally ill, they are female and mentally ill and can struggle to access treatment that responds to the trauma they have experienced. What these women need are holistic services which can respond to their complex, and gendered needs. But such services are poorly funded and few and far between.
Agenda has come together to champion this group of women, to make sure they are taken into account. Our vision is of a world where women who experience extensive abuse are recognised early by mainstream services, then supported into specialist, holistic support which recognises the trauma they have experienced and has the expertise to resolve the problems that arise from it. We bring together a diverse set of members from the addiction, homelessness, criminal justice, mental health, women’s and other sectors to share best practice, and campaign on multiple fronts. What our members have in common is a recognition that we can’t reach these women if we work in silos: we have to work together.
The single issue, gender-neutral approach isn’t working for the most excluded women and girls. We need to change systems so that the default service user isn’t male, and everyone recognises that disadvantaged women are likely to have been abused. Agenda will be launching in the early New Year, taking a new approach to campaigning and cross-sector working which aims to achieve that change. We hope you will join us.
By Katharine Sacks-Jones, Director of Agenda