It’s International Women’s Day today. This year’s theme focuses on parity between the sexes and how we all need to do more – as individuals, organisations and society – to raise awareness, close the gap and put an end to discrimination and disadvantage based on gender.
It’s also a perfect opportunity to think about how gender impacts on social work. In January this year, I attended the launch of a new organisation called Agenda: an alliance of around 60 organisations campaigning for women and girls at risk. The launch included the release of a report, Hidden Hurt, which highlighted some very relevant issues, and raised questions for how we, as social workers, support our female clients.
Social workers come across some of the most excluded women in the UK, and see the impact of a great deal of gendered abuse. Hidden Hurt paints a shocking picture of that abuse, showing that 1.2 million women, one in 20 in England, have experienced extensive physical and sexual violence as both a child and an adult. These are women who 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.
They face very difficult lives. Half have a disability which causes difficulties with at least one aspect of daily living, while more than a third experience two or more such difficulties. A very high proportion, 54 percent, reported a diagnosable mental health disorder. Their support needs are likely to be high.
These basic needs are compounded by other forms of disadvantage: 21 percent have been homeless, 31 percent have an alcohol problem and 8 percent are dependent on drugs. Many have multiple, complex, overlapping problems, potentially exacerbated by difficult living conditions. Particularly, they face high rates of poverty and poor housing, with 28 percent living in homes with mould.
It’s clear these issues are likely to interact in complex ways, making it difficult to identify the correct support. They raise some real questions for how we offer that support. Are we actively looking for signs of past or present abuse, violence and trauma and do we feel confident in offering meaningful support to women with these experiences? Are we always asking the right questions?
One even trickier issue is that we’re likely to come across women who have not only experienced extensive abuse but are also carers: 40 percent of women who have suffered the most extensive abuse care for someone who is sick or disabled. Could some of that abuse be coming from the people they care for? If so, it raises the question: how can social workers offer support while keeping both carer and cared for safe?
Further complicating matters is that evidence suggests trauma can create barriers to support. For example, trauma can impact on the areas of the brain associated with planning, making it hard for women to remember and attend appointments. Survivors of sexual violence may feel very distressed being helped with daily activities like washing unless it’s handled very carefully, meaning they may react badly to that sort of help. How do we make sure we’re sensitive to those needs when dealing with vulnerable women?
I think that trusting relationships are essential to getting to the root of these difficulties. The ongoing relationship we have with clients means social workers are ideally placed to maintain the strong relationship a woman needs to engage with support. This is especially true since a high proportion of social workers are female, meaning we can offer women who have experienced abuse the choice to work with a woman, if that helps them feel safer opening up.
The best social work in this country involves listening to the voices and upholding the rights of the people we support. Hidden Hurt has highlighted the experiences of some of the most excluded women, and I want to use this International Women’s Day to consider how these experiences can inform practice, to make sure we’re best meeting the needs of this vulnerable group.