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Jessica Southgate, Policy Manager at Agenda for Women and Girls at Risk, blogs about its new campaign.  This blog was originally posted on the Agenda website

“They should have dealt with things properly. They should have listened to what I had said…I wouldn’t have gone through the things that I went through.” – Sheena

Girls and young women facing the greatest forms of inequality and disadvantage are frequently marginalised, ignored and misunderstood. Girls facing a combination of problems – like abuse and violence, mental health problems, conflict with the law, addiction or having no safe place to call home – are often overlooked in policy and services designed to meet young people’s needs, and we hear little about the reality of their experiences.

Time and again, youth policies, reviews and strategies fail to recognise the different and gendered experiences and needs of girls and boys. The Government’s Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision Green Paper, for example, makes no mention of girls – despite the NHS’s own research showing that young women (aged 17-19) are a high-risk group for mental health problems.

Even where it is recognised that girls face poorer outcomes or face additional vulnerabilities that might mean they face further risk, their needs are rarely given the attention they deserve. The Timpson Review of School Exclusion found girls in care were much more likely to be excluded than those not in care – a much clearer trend than in boys. And despite the Charlie Taylor Youth Justice System noting the extreme vulnerability of girls in custody, the Government has no clear plan to address girls needs in the criminal justice system.

Government and the media tend to report on issues affecting disadvantaged young people as though these primarily affect boys, and in many cases the way girls are affected is overlooked. We regularly see models of provision, support and sanctions built around young men’s lives. This is particularly true where girls are in the minority, such as the criminal justice system and pupil referrals units, or where their experiences might be more hidden, such as with intimate partner violence. Overall this means girls are easier to overlook, which translates directly into what gets measured, how policy is designed, who gets heard and what gets funded on the ground.

We need to shift to a more gendered understanding of ‘risk’ and ‘harm’ as it affects young people and wider society. As girls are more likely to be a risk to themselves than to others, for example by self-harming of developing eating disorders, we often don’t see their pain and struggles. If we continue to only think about externalised behaviours such as getting in fights or acting out in school (in themselves also often expressions of trauma), we fail to see the true extent of problems affecting girls.

Unseen and left without help, girls may go on face other problems, coming to the attention of other services such as children’s social care around concerns about their own children, or as adult survivors of childhood exploitation facing the legacy of trauma. The fact that many services working with adult women say the needs of their beneficiaries are increasing, becoming more entrenched and more complex, suggests we aren’t getting things right at an earlier enough stage for girls and young women.

Sadly, we hear similar experiences to the words of Sheena all too often. Girls telling us that they haven’t been seen, understood or helped to fulfill their potential. Which is why Agenda is launching a new programme of work to uncover girl’s lived realities, and generate solutions for change. By growing the evidence base on girls needs and experiences, working with girls to identify what works and what’s needed, and engaging with those in positions of power and influence to put this into practice, we aim to bring about the change girls tell us they want.

If you work with girls and young women facing disadvantage, we would love to hear from you. Please get in touch with [email protected] to find out more and be part of this work.


Today, the Transition to Adulthood Alliance publishes a new report examining how prisons currently meet, or rather fail to meet, the needs of young adults. In a post which first appeared on his Unlocking Potential blog, Rob Allen explores how we might improve custodial arrangements for young people in the transition to adulthood.


It’s not often that Russia provides lessons on prison reform but earlier this year the Federal Penitentiary Service proposed that the age at which teenage offenders must be transferred to adult penal colonies should be deferred from 19 to 25 years old. Depending on maturity and behaviour, young adults will be able to stay in juvenile correctional facilities where they will be protected from the worst risks of the adult system and can benefit from the educational regime on offer.


Contrast this with the direction of travel in England and Wales where increasingly young adults are being held alongside older inmates in establishments that combine the functions of a specialist Young Offender Institution (YOI) and adult prison. It is sometimes claimed that adults can have a positive influence on the behaviour of younger prisoners. It is certainly true that many establishments which exclusively house young offenders struggle to keep violence under control and to deliver the educational approach they are supposed to. The Prison Inspectorate’s scathing report on Feltham B earlier this year questioned the viability of it being set aside for just young adult prisoners.



But does the answer really lie in integrated establishments? Earlier this week the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) at Portland in Dorset reported serious concerns about mixing young offenders and adult prisoners. They reported a dramatic increase in drug finds and a rise in substance trading, debt, bullying and pressure on susceptible prisoners which made the facility much less safe. The IMB suggested that a clear physical separation of young people and adults on the site would be an improvement.


A new report I’ve written for the Transition to Adulthood Alliance looks at how best to deal with this challenging age group in a prison setting. Focussing on the arrangements in England and Wales where the government is considering the future of the young adult custodial estate, the report draws on lessons from Europe.


In Germany , in each of the lander , separate youth prisons accommodate all of those from 14-21 sentenced by the courts. Under 18’s and young women live in separate house blocks but take full part in the active daily programme of education , training and employment. Unlike many British prisons, almost no young people are found on the wings during the day with evenings and weekends filled with a wide range of recreation activities. The campus at Neustrelitz north of Berlin feels more like a further education college than a prison. Staff eat their lunch in a canteen alongside the trainees. In the UK meals are almost always taken in cells , with disruptive prisoners subject to the what is sometimes disturbingly called “controlled feeding”.


The Prison Service in England and Wales acknowledges that even in a dedicated YOI, life for a young offender is not that different to prison life for adult prisoners. Staff in a YOI they admit “will not be able to give you much individual support, as there will generally be one member of staff for every ten young people.” This is a starling admission and the nub of the problem. Wherever they are held , young adults require regimes and levels of care and intervention which respond to their distinctive and developing needs.
This will be particularly true in the re-designated regional resettlement prisons which will prepare prisoners for release. As with the Transforming Rehabilitation Proposals as a whole, without a specific focus on the young adult age group, they will continue to be a neglected group.


Rob Allen is co-founder of the Justice and Prisons and a former Chair of the Transition to Adulthood Alliance. You can read his report in full online here.