26/01/2017 12:53 GMT | Updated 27/01/2018 05:12 GMT

A Woman's Ability To Get Help Should Not Depend On Where She Lives

UNDP in Europe and Central Asia/Flickr

Specialist women's centres are a vital resource for women often when they are at their most vulnerable and most in need of support.

Provision of these services is already extremely patchy, yet in recent weeks two such providers, Wearside Women in Need and Worcestershire's Asha Centre, are reportedly under threat of closure, leaving women in those areas at greater risk.

Services such as these help women with some of the most complex needs. A staggering 1.2 million women have suffered violence and abuse throughout their lives, in childhood and as an adult.

Their experiences mean they are likely to be deeply traumatised, and many go on to face multiple issues like low self-esteem, poor mental and physical health, sometimes turning to drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms.

Specialist women-centred services have the facilities and staff to support these women in the most holistic and sensitive way.

For example, Natasha grew up in a chaotic home, witnessing and experiencing violence, going in and out of care, and suffering abuse. She struggled for years until she was able to access specialist services that helped her turn her life around.

So it is impossible to put a price on the value of these services and more funding must be made available to support them. A woman's ability to access the help she needs should not depend on where she lives.

Mapping services

That is why Agenda, an alliance of more than 70 organisations campaigning for women and girls at risk, and AVA (Against Violence and Abuse) are working together to map service provision for women across the country.

For the first time, it will show what support is available across the spectrum of issues affecting the most disadvantaged women, including homelessness, substance abuse and mental health.

But it is not just about what is available, it is also about the quality, relevance and appropriateness of those services.

The first phase of our research - published today - has looked into the evidence of how services currently work and what models and approaches could help improve them.

It found that women accessing services are often viewed through the lens of what is wrong with them, i.e. drug problems or mental health issues, rather than through the context of what may have led to that, such as violence, neglect or abuse.

Many services fail to acknowledge the impact of gender on women's lives at all. And problems are not necessarily treated in a holistic way, with different services often operating in silos.

Which is why women-centred services, bringing together specialist knowledge and tailored care, are so important.

Social context

Our research shows that a gendered perspective, which considers the social context of women's lives and the social inequalities they face, is fundamental to providing effective services. Without this, services are unlikely to meet the needs of women who face multiple disadvantage.

There are a number of factors within this we have identified as being important:

1) A values system that understands the reality of women's lives and experiences including being aware of how age, class, race and ethnicity may intersect to affect individual women's experiences.

2) Non-judgemental services and relationships between women service users and staff based on trust, with women feeling listened to and respected.

3) Making women feel empowered and that they have choice over the decisions in their lives. Services should be more than something merely 'done to' or 'for' women but 'with' them.

4) Providing women-only spaces to help women feel safe, as well as being places that provide more holistic support with staff who have the skills to work with women who have multiple issues.

5) Taking a trauma-informed approach means that women are understood in the context of the abuse and disadvantage they have suffered, and the psychological impact of that trauma.

By taking a gender sensitive approach, incorporating the five factors listed above, it is possible to realise lasting positive change for the thousands of women experiencing multiple disadvantage.

But that can only happen if the existing organisations, those already providing holistic women-centred services, are able to survive.

If you work with women, please fill out our survey to help us map women's services, here. The full Mapping the Maze report will be available in the Spring.

For more information about Agenda visit: