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Opinion

Women and girls across Britain are in crisis. The next government must act – and fast

Agenda Alliance, backed by 55 organisations, is calling for reform to the government to protect women and girls with a dedicated secretary of state

secretary of state for women and girls/ women's rights protest

Women's rights must be protected as a priority by the next government. Image: Unsplash

Agenda Alliance campaigns for women and girls at the sharpest edge of adversity. These are women who have experienced poverty and abuse, and its connected repercussions. We see every day that women and girls across Britain are facing a crisis of unmet need.

The significant challenges women and girls share with us span every area of government: health, housing, social care, the criminal justice system, education and immigration. Many have no safe place to call home, are living with long-term mental health needs, or use substances to cope.

What we and our member specialist frontline organisations see every day is that the very services which are meant to help, public and voluntary sector services, often stigmatise, refuse or are unable to support these women. Their serious problems are left unaddressed, compound one another, and worsen. Escalation could be prevented, lives could be saved, if public services intervened sooner.

This is why women and girls need a champion at the highest level of government – only a secretary of state has the power to drive forward change across the range of issues women and girls experience.

We want government to listen to women like Nici, a member of Agenda Alliance’s advisory network, who said: “Policymakers need a kick up the butt. They need to do something, and they need to do it fast otherwise there are going to be so many more disadvantaged women; more suicides, homelessness, child removal.”

Nici has important expertise to contribute to building solutions to support women and girls, because she has lived experience of the difficulties in accessing support. We believe politicians need to be hearing and valuing voices like hers. 

There are more than 100 specialist organisations that make up our membership, and they have told us they want us to be ambitious. They want politicians to understand that the disadvantage women and girls are experiencing is made worse because their specific needs are being ignored: services and systems are built with a generic ‘white male service user’ in mind.

Women and girls aren’t getting the attention they deserve, and their life chances are worsening. A woman is killed by a man every three days in the UK. On a visit in February 2024, the UN Special Rapporteur declared violence against women a “national threat”.  

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Between 2018 and 2021, the North East (a region with some of the worst rates of poverty in the UK) saw the numbers of women who die due to suicide, drug and alcohol misuse, and domestic homicide rise by 15%. In 2020, the average age of a woman who died whilst accessing support from one of our members was just 37 years old. This isn’t acceptable, and it has to change – meaning committing a serious level of time and political resource that matches the seriousness of women’s needs.

Women and girls need someone fighting their corner where serious political decisions are made, especially when there’s an opportunity for things to change. Yet our current system means the ministers assigned to support women and girls have always held other significant government roles – big jobs like home secretary, or secretary of state for culture, media and sport. The Women and Equalities Committee itself have suggested that the role should become “a standalone brief in its own right”.

We have thought a lot about what this secretary of state could do in practice, and shared a manifesto and policy recommendations for where energy should be focused to make a difference.

These include conducting a review into how the cost of living crisis impacts women and girls specifically, introducing radical prevention funds for all local authorities to enable them to intervene early, working with the treasury to create a system which demonstrates how intervening early in one government department can save another department taxpayer money.

Our recommendations focus on systems change, embedding good practice, and tackling stigma so that women and girls’ lives change for the better.

Our alliance wants a secretary of state to prioritise women and girls, and work to prevent harm; share their power, by involving women and girls with lived experience; and champion the specialist women and girls sector, which is chronically underfunded and unappreciated despite being literally life-saving.

As our advisor Nici says: “It needs acting on and it needs acting on fast.”

The crisis facing women and girls across Britain can and must be turned around and that’s why we’re calling SOS. It’s time for a secretary of state for women and girls.

Indy Cross is the chief executive of Agenda Alliance.

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