The importance of a gender informed approach to multiple needs

Amanda Greenwood, CEO of Lancashire Women’s Centres and her colleagues share their insights on the importance of a gender informed approach to multiple needs.

At Lancashire Women’s Centres we work in partnership with other agencies in Blackburn to better coordinate services for people experiencing multiple needs through the MEAM Approach. The partnership recognised early on that there was a need for a different offer for women experiencing multiple needs in the area. It was important to take a trauma informed approach to working with the most complex and vulnerable clients; many of whom have been the victims of sexual and violent abuse and with a history of trauma from childhood.

Our experience has taught us that not enough attention is given to the specific needs of women in the design and delivery of services. This is evident when women who are considered ‘complex’ are turned away from female only accommodation due to being considered too high risk and when women are placed in a House of Multiple Occupation of mixed sex, mainly occupied by men, leaving them in extremely vulnerable situations.

It is often the case that the women we see have been, and still are, victims of exploitation and violence at the hands of male perpetrators and have very little control over their own life choices. When women present with multiple issues, stemming from complex and traumatic backgrounds and experiences, many find it difficult to open up. They often have done so previously and then been let down when they have not received the support they needed.

It is therefore crucial to our work that we focus on the individual and build a rapport with the women in a non- judgemental and compassionate way that helps to build trust from an early stage. At the heart of everything we do is the relationship we have with the women we work with.

The work can be difficult and supporting women with mental health issues can be particularly difficult when presented with high risk taking and chaotic behaviours – women in high levels of distress whose self-confidence and self-esteem is virtually non-existent exposing their vulnerability to exploitation. We have witnessed first-hand women being coerced into street begging whilst being secretly watched by their partner.  Women who have been victims of coercion by males are less likely to engage with a male worker, and will be concerned about entering a service where they could be seen by a perpetrator of their abuse.

However, when you successfully help women and they see their own journey on reflection, they feel a sense of fulfilment in life and a personal gain. They experience a huge sense of pride when they accomplish something, for example, attending an appointment, reducing substance use and engaging with family members again – all things that may not feel that significant but are massive to them.  We can help them to make real lifestyle changes so they understand their triggers and risks. For most women in our work this could be the first time they have become self-regulating and therefore the first time they have felt as if they are in control.

For us, this just spurs us on to keep working with them. The opportunity to support and empower women to find their own path and to lead fulfilling lives of their choosing can never be underestimated.

We therefore believe that it is imperative that partnerships using the MEAM Approach consider gender in the design and delivery of their local activity. By considering gender in greater detail, partners will be better able to understand how the risks faced by women may present – and how these may differ from male participants.

Through our own model of working (both as a delivery partner in Blackburn and local stakeholder in Blackpool Fulfilling Lives), we believe that effective partnership work with specialist providers to be a really effective way of ensuring this. This will become evident through better engagement, improved relationship building between staff and women, longer term support, increased safety and ultimately improved wellbeing for women.

This article was written for Multiple Needs In Focus, a regular newsletter for both MEAM and Fulfilling Lives partnerships to share their news, events and thoughts. Sign up for the email.