08/03/2016 11:32 GMT | Updated 09/03/2017 05:12 GMT

When We're Talking About Equality, We Mustn't Forget the Most Marginalised

It's International Women's Day, meaning we'll be hearing today about the distance we still have to go to eliminate gender inequality. Women still faced a huge range of challenges: the pay gap; the lack of women in senior and political positions; unequal caring responsibilities; high (and potentially growing) levels of gendered violence; the list goes on. All are problems which hold women back, and prevent half the population achieving our full potential.

What often gets lost among these important issues is the way all the different symptoms and kinds of inequality combine with other forms of disadvantage and oppression in the lives of women. The women at the sharpest end of inequality are frequently completely invisible in conversations about empowerment. So this International Women's Day, Agenda will be highlighting the needs of these most excluded women.

There is a large but hidden group of women in our society, for whom inequality and disadvantage are embedded into daily life. Research for Agenda has shown that one in 20 women in England has experienced extensive physical and sexual violence as both a child and as an adult. These 1.2 million women have been sexually abused in childhood or severely beaten by a parent or carer, many have been raped as adults and suffered severe abuse from a partner including being choked, strangled or threatened with a weapon. Of all those who experience this level of violence and abuse the vast majority, 84%, are women.

Women who have these experiences often face very difficult lives. More than half have a diagnosable mental disorder, 21% have been homeless, 46% are in the lowest income tertile, 31% have an alcohol problem and 8% are dependent on drugs. They have often grown up poor, witnessing abuse and violence at home and seeing its impact on their mothers.

The combination of trauma, lack of access to resources and poor mental and physical health can prevent them from building better lives for themselves. Employment is often insecure, inflexible, and difficult to maintain. Housing is precarious.

Too many end up in the worst imaginable situations: in prison, homeless, in prostitution, with life-threatening mental and physical health problems. Many lose multiple children into care without ever being offered any support. We are failing them.

Black and ethnic minority women and girls often experience additional forms of inequality and discrimination based on race or religion, and face particular practical, cultural and social barriers. Women who are trafficked or whose immigration status is insecure face further obstacles and may fear systems, like the police, which should be there to protect them from further violence and exploitation. For too many women, not speaking English means they are not included in the conversation.

We've got to get better at reaching all of these women and girls. At recognising the ways in which gender, trauma, poverty, race, and other forms of inequality combine together to trap them. We need systems and services to recognise when women are experiencing these multiple forms of disadvantage, and to provide safe, effective, trauma and gender informed support.

We welcome the Government's recognition of this group in today's VAWG strategy. But we've got a long way to go before we're really reaching them. To do that, we need to recognise that inequalities combine to place an unbearable burden on some women, and we need to work together to start lifting that burden.