05/04/2016 13:27 BST | Updated 06/04/2017 06:12 BST

Making the Most Vulnerable Women Visible

It's encouraging that we're having more public conversations about gender inequality. But we're not yet talking enough about women who are at the sharpest end of this inequality, whose needs are the most complex: those who face the most disadvantage.

Agenda exists to campaign for women who face profound inequality and have extensive experiences of abuse and trauma, often starting in childhood and continuing on-and-off throughout their adult lives. Our research revealed that 1.2million women in England had experienced serious abuse as both a child and an adult.

Many have low self-esteem, and feelings of worthlessness. Unsurprisingly they suffer very high rates of mental ill health -in the form of depression, anxiety, PTSD, psychosis, ADHD, eating disorders, phobias, and other problems. Many turn to drugs and alcohol to cope. Many are disabled or have poor physical health.

These women generally don't have the resources to build better lives. Many live in the poorest households. A high proportion are or have been homeless: our research found 20% of women who had the most extensive experiences of abuse had been homeless at some point. They may be involved in prostitution, at risk of significant further violence. Others end up in contact with the criminal justice system, or in prison.

These women are invisible: we don't think about them when we're thinking about the issues that affect them. Too often we don't even see them. Homeless women will often hide themselves away to reduce the risk of violence. Most people misusing drugs are men so, perhaps naturally, interventions tend to focus on their needs. The Government doesn't collect national statistics on the proportion of women receiving mental health treatment who have experienced abuse, even though we know abuse is often a significant trigger for mental health problems.

We have to start paying attention to these women. As well as creating and supporting the kind of services which meet the needs of the most excluded women, we need to start making their needs explicit in other contexts. Mental health services should be asking about and crucially properly responding to histories of abuse. Policies to address homelessness need to think about the particular needs of women who might not feel safe in a male dominated hostel. Our drug strategies must make the links between abuse, mental ill-health, and addiction for women.

There are some encouraging signs. It was great to see women with complex needs recognised in the recent Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy, which came out last month. But we're nowhere near to getting it right for these women, and too many aren't getting the help they need.

Too often the most vulnerable women are falling through gaps: not counted properly in statistics, not recognised by services designed to help with one specific problem, not targeted in policies that aren't narrowly focussed on 'women's issues'. But the cost of ignoring them, in terms of their lives, the lives of their children, and of their communities is too high. Let's start seeing these women, recognising their whole lives and the breadth of support they need. Because if we don't see them, we'll never prevent women getting trapped in lives marked by inequality, abuse and ill health.