George Osborne is already coming under fire for using the 'tampon tax' to fund women's charities, particularly those responding to abuse. Many are (rightly) asking whether women should have to pay tax on essential items to fund the services that help them escape abuse predominantly perpetrated by men. But despite these concerns, more money for chronically underfunded women's services is welcome. Now we must look at how we spend it.
Specialist women's services are a lifeline for women experiencing abuse. But too often they don't have the resources to reach the most excluded women and girls. These are women who have experienced the most extensive abuse and violence, physical and sexual, starting in childhood and continuing throughout their adult lives. They grow up traumatised and see that trauma repeated time and time again. Unsurprisingly many have incredibly low self-esteem, develop serious mental health problems and turn to drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms. They end up in range of awful situations as a result, including homelessness, prostitution, and prison. Many are mothers, and face their children being taken into care.
Samia* is one such woman. She was sexually and physically abused by her father, then ostracised by the community she grew up in when she started running away as a teen. In her twenties, she moved between violent relationships and street homelessness, while struggling to get help with a severe anxiety disorder. She tried to kill herself more than once.
She's not alone. Studies suggest as many as nine out of 10 women entering drug treatment have histories of sexual and physical abuse. Up to 85% of women in prostitution report physical abuse in the family, with 45% reporting familial sexual abuse. Around half of women in prison report experiencing domestic violence (with actual figures likely to be higher), while over half report abuse or violence as a child. It is depressingly predictable that women who experience abuse as children go on to have incredibly difficult adult lives, blighted by violence and destitution.
Sadly, these women are often turned away from a whole range of services because their needs are 'too complex'. They are refused mental health support until they kick their drug addiction. The addiction service they are put in contact with is set up to respond mainly to men's needs, and doesn't recognise the trauma that lies at the heart of their drug or alcohol use. Even refuges are often unable to respond to women with the most severe mental health needs.
Without the proper support, these women move from one expensive crisis to the next, meaning more trips to A&E, higher use of crisis mental health care, and more contact with the police.
We need to bring together expertise across the whole range of problems women face, so we can meet these women where they are. Fundamentally, services need to be set up to meet the existing needs of women, women shouldn't have to fit into specific categories to access services.
Many of Agenda's members are doing this work already, creating or running projects which help women build stable lives while also providing real value for money. Their experience shows that taking bits of money from lots of different pots to deal with each individual aspect of a woman's problem is expensive and not very effective. Funding services which look at the women's lives as a whole have more of an impact on women's lives and provide better value for money.
So let's make sure some of this 'tampon tax' is spent on funding services dedicated to supporting the most vulnerable and excluded women in our society. And let's look at ways to make sure funding for this work is maintained when we hopefully see an end to VAT on 'feminine hygiene products'.