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Wed 19 February 2020
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The deputy chief executive of the Lankelly Chase foundation outlines the findings of its new research exploring how disadvantages might manifest differently in the lives of women.

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Do you have those days when you’re leaving the house, desperately trying to find your keys or glasses, you’ve turned it upside down, only to discover that the missing item was on the table hiding in plain sight? That feeling of frustration and relief coming in waves when you find it. Why didn’t I look better in the first place?

To me, the report Lankelly Chase is launching today, Gender Matters, reveals that something similar is going on with people’s experience of extreme poverty and inequality. In particular, when they face a harsh combination of disadvantages.

And if you don’t take into account the simple fact of whether someone is a man or a woman, it’s too easy to assume that it’s not a significant factor. But it is. As a result, we leave women, and some men, hiding in plain sight. This report shows that the combination of homelessness, mental ill-health, substance misuse and domestic violence and abuse has a gender. And that gender is female.  

Why do I say inequality can have a gender?

Because women make up 70% – that’s nearly 12,000 women – of the total number of adults found to be facing these severe, linked social disadvantages at any one time. The number might sound small, but the impact is enormous. These women aren’t hiding; they are hurting in plain sight.

As ever with statistics, they only represent the tip of the iceberg. I could throw other figures out there to make the case. If you zoom out, the report also found that 336,000 people in England today (roughly the same size as the population of Nottingham) face at least three of four of life’s harshest disadvantages – homelessness, mental ill-health, substance misuse and violence and abuse. Of those, more than half have been found by this latest research to be women. 

Even when I share these figures, I know they are likely to be underestimates because some lives are so hidden that they are hard to track down in statistics. Figures also hide the lives of people behind the numbers, masking the challenging reality women and men cope with everyday. They don’t show the stigma women face; the fear they have about approaching services as they might lose their children. They often don’t show their hopes and dreams. 

In 2015, we published Hard Edges, which looked at inequality and poverty differently, taking into account homelessness, drug and alcohol dependency and contact with the criminal justice system. It found that, if you looked at this combination of factors, then it was mainly men. This ground-breaking piece of research demonstrated statistically what we know from the real world: that when you talk about someone sleeping rough, using drugs or in prison, you are often talking about the same person. 

Knowing it was possible to do, led us to ask what would happen if we took a different, gendered approach to multiple disadvantage and poverty. Gender Matters started out by talking to women to understand which “disadvantages” we should prioritise. This led to the stronger, and unsurprising, focus on violence and abuse. Through this combination, we looked at both men and women’s experiences.

It’s obvious when you think about it, isn’t it? Of course inequality should be viewed through a gender lens. However, often you can get caught up in the day-to-day reality of supporting people facing immediate crisis and stop noticing things. I know. 

I too have been on a personal journey. Prior to joining Lankelly Chase, a foundation cultivating systemwide social change, I spent 15 years working in the homelessness sector. Women’s services, in homelessness, were niche, specialist and often not the priority. They were carved off and offered a pampering workshop within a hostel or, at best, accommodation in women’s hostels. When women were talked about, the provision always had the prefix ‘women’s’ to it. Meaning by inference, the mainstream provision of hostels were for men? 

At Lankelly Chase, we believe that women’s provision such as refuges, women-only hostels and women’s centres are essential, not nice-to-have luxuries, in the landscape of provision. However, they do not go far enough. They leave large swathes of provision and policies unchallenged because they are not taking into account what it means to be a woman, or indeed a man, and need support to thrive. 

This leads to another contentious area – violence and abuse. Underpinning this research, is a depressingly strong thread of violence. From the children, both boys and girls, who have been through it at home or on the streets through to the adult experience of it – both as perpetrators and victims, sometimes concurrently. Even when thinking about violence we cannot ignore gender. Women are far more likely to experience domestic violence at the hands of men, than the other way around (of course not all women are victims, not all men are violent). 

As tricky as it is, we have to start a conversation about normalised violence – from our everyday language to the more extreme issues of perpetrators of violence as well as, importantly, victims of violence. 

Responding to our research, one woman, Lisa Newman, highlighted on a practical, compassionate level how important it is for emergency services to treat all women in crisis with a deeper understanding of trauma. “Once again, I was, sitting through hours of questions about my whole life,” she said. “I can’t begin to explain how traumatic that experience is – we’re asked about our childhood, relationships, mental health diagnosis, physical injuries and illnesses, criminal behaviour, history of our addiction. Then we’re asked to measure from 1-10 how we feel. Ruined.”

How should we all respond? As Lisa shows, women with first-hand experience must be at the heart of the response; they should be at the table in the design and delivery of services. They know what it’s like. I, and maybe many of you, can only assume. A women’s minister is great, likewise a women’s unit and women’s centre in every area, but these in themselves are not the only solution. 

Women make up 51% of the UK’s population. As we now know, they also make up half the adults who are mentally unwell, facing abuse and violence, who are drug or alcohol dependent and with no place to call home. Yet, too often these women are hurting in plain sight. 

Let’s first recognise the need for ‘gender goggles’ when thinking about the best response to poverty, inequality and multiple disadvantage. It’s time to stop essentially designing services for a man’s world. Everyone from ministers, to frontline workers, from funders to faith groups need to don these goggles. At the start of 2020 it might seem obvious – but sometimes we need to notice and respond to what’s hiding in plain sight.


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