17 AUGUST 2016

The most vulnerable women and girls face uncertain futures at the best of times. With childhoods marked by trauma, poverty, and insecurity, they grow up to struggle with mental illness, addiction and homelessness too often. Abuse and violence run through their experiences, appearing and reappearing time after time as they escape one perpetrator only to be targeted by another. Frequently, they fall through the cracks between services, perceived as ‘too difficult’ to engage, or just not seen at all.

At times of political and economic uncertainty, these women and girls are at the greatest risk. The services they need most – specialist women’s services funded by local authorities, children’s centres, early intervention support – are often among the first to be cut. Their employment is generally low paid and insecure, particularly vulnerable to shifts in employment trends. Of the many women who have faced the most extensive abuse and violence, 40% are carers and 77% are parents. They struggle to meet increasing costs while simultaneously losing services. For those who are homeless, struggling with addiction, or who face the very worst mental ill-health, further instability can make the difference between surviving and not.

But change also brings opportunities to make things better. Agenda has joined #FaceHerFuture to campaign for these most vulnerable women to be counted in the plans for the UK post-Brexit. Whatever happens politically, it’s clear that the domestic policy scene is being radically altered. And it’s these most vulnerable women who stand to gain most, as well as lose most, from change.

We want to see a new political landscape where the rights and needs of the most excluded women and girls are a key priority for governments and institutions across the political spectrum. Where it’s recognised that disadvantaged women face some of that disadvantage because they are women – their experiences are gendered and so support must be too. Where we see women and girls in difficult situations not as problems, but as people with enormous strength and potential.

Key to this is ensuring that women’s rights, many of which were introduced through the EU, aren’t watered down by Brexit. Rather, we need to make sure that all women, especially the most vulnerable, can access their rights – to make them reality rather than rhetoric. As well as meaningful gender impact assessments of major spending decisions, we want to see a commitment to explicitly considering gendered needs for men and women at all levels of public service design and delivery. BME women are particularly badly served at the moment, so ensuring that this consideration also extends to race is essential.

We want to make Britain the best place in the world to be a woman – and that has to mean for women who face the most difficulty and disadvantage too. We need change which puts women and girls at the heart of systems and good quality, holistic support for the most disadvantaged women. It might be hard, but this kind of political upheaval comes less than once in a generation. We have to make the most of the opportunity it to rethink our approach to gender and inequality.

Katharine Sacks-Jones,  the inaugural Director of AgendaABOUT AUTHOR 

Katharine became the inaugural Director of Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk, in May 2015. She has over 12 years’ experience working in policy, public affairs and parliament. Katharine is also a trustee of Bail for Immigration Detainees and the Tenancy Deposit Scheme Charitable Foundation.