Opinion

We need to stop hoping for a cure and prevent women and girls from facing poverty and abuse

This International Women's Day, Agenda Alliance calls for early intervention against the issues facing women and girls – rather than letting poverty and abuse spiral out of control

Who am I thinking of on International Women’s Day? I’m thinking of the women we campaign for at Agenda Alliance who have experienced poverty, abuse and trauma.

Often, they have faced all three together. Sadly, experiences in girlhood too often set up a life-long cycle of harm – poor mental health, substance misuse, homelessness and criminalisation.

We all know the saying: prevention is better than cure. It is so true. From our work alongside women and girls at the sharpest edge of adversity, we know that only prevention will transform their lives for good.

One young woman Loishana told us how her problems began at school, saying: “My experiences weren’t positive. There was a lot of bullying. I didn’t have open spaces or anyone I could go to speak to. I tried to speak to teachers and all they did was call my parents in, but then the physical and mental abuse was still continuing.”

Girls face worrying levels of misogyny as early as school. Recent data shows that 45% of boys and young men aged 16 to 24 hold a positive opinion of misogynistic influencer, Andrew Tate. The result: sexual harassment in schools is so rife that some girls don’t feel safe and stop attending. 

In the worst cases, girls living difficult lives outside of school, with special educational needs or who are neurodivergent are suspended or excluded from the education system at the time when they most need tailored support.   

This further compounds inequalities. We’ve seen from our own evidence-gathering that girls from minoritised backgrounds are disproportionately affected by school exclusions and suspensions. The good news is that we absolutely know what works.

Spaces and services for women and girls are a big part of prevention. Specialist professionals tell us time and time again that interrupting this cycle of harm depends on early intervention. In Newham, East London, a pioneering Youth to Adult probation hub delivered in partnership with Advance, provides wraparound support to address the underlying issues affecting the young women’s lives.   

Zoe, a caseworker for the young women, told us that policymakers “don’t take young women’s needs seriously”. She says: “Why do you always wait until we’re in a crisis? Why wait so long when they’re asking for help usually right at the beginning? There needs to be more preventative work.” 

Loishana attends the hub, supported by Zoe. It being a space for young women only makes all the difference to her: “I felt more open with Zoe and my probation officer because it was solely based around women. I feel like if there had been men there, I wouldn’t have been able to open up or confide in them about things.”

Yet Agenda Alliance’s work evidences the catastrophic outcomes when the crises Zoe describes are ignored. In the UK, women are dying as early as 37 because they are being let down by public services. Our research in the North East with Changing Lives found that a woman in the North East of England is 1.7 times more likely to die early from suicide, addiction, or murder by a partner or family member than in the rest of England and Wales.

Women themselves are suffering, but so are their children, families, communities too. Lorna says: “In the last two months, two women have died that I knew. I’m scared of losing another friend or if something happens to myself. Addiction doesn’t discriminate, it can be anyone.”

It’s clearly in everyone’s interests to intervene earlier. 

The general election provides the perfect opportunity to put a stop to unnecessary trauma to women. That demands a champion at the highest levels of government. The fact is we don’t have one at the moment. Yes, we have a minister for Women and Equalities – but they attend Cabinet as Secretary of State for Business and Trade; that brief drains their time.  

Women and girls deserve so much more.  

That’s why on this International Women’s Day – and in the lead up to a general election – we’re calling for a dedicated secretary of state for women and girls to sit at cabinet level, and champion women and girls’ needs. We want a political post with the power to make change across every government department to reflect the interconnected lives women lead. 

Nici, who we work with, tells it like it is: “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. It needs acting on and it needs acting on fast.” 

Let’s stop hoping for a cure and get behind prevention – so that all women and girls, whatever their challenges, have the support they need to thrive.

Indy Cross is the chief executive of Agenda Alliance.

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