Transforming services the 'women centred' way

By Clare Jones | 08 March 2016
  • Clare Jones

Could doing things in a 'women centred' way help improve outcomes for women and families with complex needs without busting local authorities' budgets? With events around the world to celebrate International Women's Day, councils might take a moment to consider this question.

Principles of what has come to be called the 'women centred approach' have grown out of decades of ground-breaking work at women's centres around the UK.

There is powerful evidence of its benefits for women struggling with inter-related problems including domestic violence, sexual abuse, addictions, homelessness and poor mental and physical health. These women often circle around drug and alcohol, mental health and homelessness services, courts and child protection meetings.

But, again and again, we've seen how disadvantaged women are also able to transform their lives if we put them at the heart of community-based, integrated services. Research such as AGENDA's Hidden Hurt study highlights the extent of trauma resulting from abuse, which is why gendered working uses 'trauma informed' approaches to help get to the roots of problems.

The women centred approach does not necessarily require extra resources. Drawing upon women as assets in communities can mean better use of existing finances through better service design to avoid duplication.

As budgets shrink, councils are increasingly tapping into people's potential to help themselves and develop resilient communities. Women centred working can be valuable here because it means working alongside women to 'co-produce' solutions rather than doing things for them.

Oldham Council has recognised this with inclusion of the local Inspire Women programme in its Early Help service transformation model, which provides tailored support to equip people to find their own capacity to help themselves and each other.

Doing things differently is never easy. Researchers from the Families and Intergenerational Research Group at Huddersfield University found potential challenges in implementing gender specific services were anticipation of debates around 'why is it just for women?' and where this multi-dimensional work sits organisationally. However, interviews conducted for the research also found that articulating the business case helps show gendered working is not just a 'nice thing to do' but has practical advantages.

And there is a strong business case. The Women Centred Working initiative has examples where women have improved their mental health, beaten addictions and been re-united with children thanks to gendered support. At a time when the number of Looked After Children is highest in 30 years, moving just one child out of care saves an authority around £50k a year, not to mention preventing knock-on inter-generational disadvantage.

Leeds Beckett University's evaluation of the Way Forward project in Calderdale identified impressive results among 165 young women involved, who went on to jobs and courses, developed resilience and reduced anxiety, substance misuse and risk-taking behaviour. It demonstrated cost savings relating to this gendered, preventative approach.

A new Women Centred Working discussion paper asks: 'Can a smarter approach help your authority respond to the challenge of individuals and families with multiple needs?' International Women's Day is a good time to find out.

Clare Jones is national lead of Women Centred Working, an initiative to encourage design and delivery of more effective services for women facing multiple disadvantages

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