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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.


Barrow Cadbury Trust, LankellyChase Foundation and the Pilgrim Trust commissioned DMSS to undertake a wide ranging review as part of their work to broaden the approach of the Corston Independent Funders Coalition to look at the underlying causes of risk and disadvantage for women and girls. We have been supported by a committed Transitional Steering Group, which comprises Clinks, Women’s Breakout, User Voice and a range of other organisations.


The review looked across the life course of women and girls who experience poor outcomes (offending, homelessness, prostitution and exploitation, chronic mental health and substance abuse) and whilst highlighting significant gaps in the evidence in this area, drew out key messages:


  • Gender inequality affects all women, but there is a gradient of gendered disadvantage with poor, black and minority ethnic women at the bottom.
  • Prevalence research shows that girls are at greater risk of most kinds of abuse, including severe maltreatment and child sexual abuse.
  • In Britain 1 in 4 women experience physical violence perpetrated by a partner at some time in their lives
  • There is an accumulation of risk over the life course and the poorest outcomes are for those who experience abuse and violence as both children and as adults.
  • Many of the outcomes of violence and abuse increase the risk of further victimisation; women who become homeless, misuse drugs and/or are involved in criminality are highly likely to experience further violence.
  • Responses to adversity, including abuse, tend to be differentiated by gender, with boys more likely to externalise problems (and act out anger and distress through anti-social behaviour) and girls to internalise their responses in the form of depression and self-harming behaviours.
  • For women, there is co-existence of different negative life experiences and that women with multiple problems frequently experience difficulty in accessing support.
  • The evidence from service evaluations and research with women at risk supports a model of integrated, holistic, one-stop, women-centred services as being valued and engaging for those who use them although the evidence for achieving specific outcomes is under developed.


The report is critical to the development of a new Alliance of organisations which will bring together a shared narrative and create energy to take action on these issues. Looking across the life course of women and girls, this review demonstrates to the emerging Alliance the importance of having a strong gendered narrative and an understanding of the effect of inequality, violence and abuse.


The full review and key messages summary are both available with the following links: