‘Again and again, public services are failing women in need in the North East’ said Indy Cross, chief exec of Agenda Alliance. Image: Shutterstock
A woman in the North East of England is 1.7 times more likely to die prematurely from suicide, addiction or murder by a partner or family member than in the rest of England and Wales, new research has revealed.
The numbers are rising, at least in part due to austerity, the pandemic and cost of living crisis which have led to overwhelmed and neglected public services in some of the poorest regions of the country – including Newcastle, Gateshead and Sunderland.
“This is not new news,” said the Labour MP Jess Phillips, launching the report at the House of Commons. “It is just that now we have got to do something about it.”
The charities Agenda Alliance and Changing Lives, which published the report, found the number of women dying by domestic homicide, addiction or suicide in the North East increased by 15% between 2018 and 2021.
Changing Lives has said that the average age of women “known to have died whilst accessing their services is currently just 37 years old. Prior to 2020, it was 47”. By comparison, the typical life expectancy of a woman in England is 83, according to official statistics. Since 2019, 61 woman have died while being supported by the charity, more than half from domestic abuse.
“I’m 41,” Phillips added. “If I lived in the North East, maybe I would be one of the women not making it to 40.”
Speaking at the launch event, Indy Cross, the chief executive of Agenda Alliance, said: “The North East has been disproportionately affected by austerity, the cost of living crisis and the pandemic. That’s a triple shock.”
She added: “Again and again, public services are failing women in need in the North East. And the consequences are fatal. It is unbelievable that in 2023 women in any part of the country are dying before they even reach their 40th birthday.
“If this doesn’t serve as a wake-up call to make levelling-up promises live up to reality, it’s hard to know what will. In the wake of Covid-19, public services must do better. We need urgent action. There is no time to waste, lives depend on it. Every woman’s life matters.”
The North East has the highest rate of poverty in the UK, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, with 26% of people living in poverty. This is only getting worse in the cost of living crisis, with lifeline services already overwhelmed after over a decade of austerity.
Phillips said that vulnerable women are often treated like “pariahs” and criminalised rather than being supported in her constituency and more widely.
Public services – such as childcare and early years support, community centres, domestic and sexual violence services, health, housing, social care, and youth services – all have fewer resources because of cuts.
The North East has been particularly affected by austerity. Public spending fell by 13% across the whole of England between 2009 and 2019, while the North East saw a 23% drop, according to the report. This particularly impacts women and disadvantaged groups who rely on these services for survival.
Lorna, a woman interviewed for the research, said: “In the last two months, two women have died that I knew. One woman was admitted to hospital after having seizures, before that she was getting well and was in touch with people. Then nobody heard from her. This woman was a great person.
“It really makes you think about your own life. The other woman relapsed, and I’m at another funeral this week. I’m scared of losing another friend or if something happens to myself. Addiction doesn’t discriminate, it can be anyone.”
Mental health services are barred to many women who need it because they are refused treatment due to drug or alcohol addiction. Women also reported experiencing significant delays in support, long waiting lists, and missing out on help altogether from services.
Lauren McIntyre, head of women and children’s services at Changing Lives, added: “It’s time to stop the cruel exclusion of women most in need of mental health services due to their alcohol or drug addiction. We know from the women we work with that both drink and drugs are a common coping mechanism for abuse.
“These women should be top of the list for help, to save lives. We hope that going forward the learnings from this report can be properly incorporated by services so that all women are understood, recognised, and offered support that works for them.”
The government’s Levelling Up white paper published last year outlined plans to “spread opportunities and improve public services, especially in those places where they are the weakest”.
But the charities are concerned about “the extent to which this will translate from slogan to tangible change”. Agenda Alliance is calling on the government to prioritise disadvantaged women in the North East, with a focus on revitalising public services. It also asks for a governmental taskforce to tackle inequalities.
Speaking at the House of Commons, the domestic abuse commissioner Nicole Jacobs added: “Our public services were never designed with understanding of domestic abuse and they certainly weren’t designed with an understanding of multiple complex disadvantages.”
She added that “core funding” should be given to specialist services and that should be “sitting around much more systemic change within our services”.
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