Severe and Multiple Disadvantage for Women and Girls – what difference does gender make?

27th October 2016, words by Di McNeish, Sara Scott

The term ‘disadvantage’ is widely used and we all know what it means. Or do we? What sorts of things get defined as disadvantages in the first place? And given that disadvantages rarely feature singly in peoples’ lives, what are the clusters which add up to severe and multiple disadvantage?

18 months ago, when colleagues from Heriot Watt University generated the first major profile of people facing SMD for Lankelly Chase, they examined the overlaps between three particular domains of disadvantage: substance misuse, homelessness and involvement with the criminal justice system. Their analysis of service use data from across these domains enabled them to count and profile a severely disadvantaged population: around 58,000 people were found to be experiencing all three domains of disadvantage in a single year.

A striking feature of the profile generated was that it was predominantly male. For Lankelly Chase this raised some critical questions: Are men really more severely and multiply disadvantaged than women? Or does SMD for women and girls look different? If SMD women are not to be found in large numbers amongst those in contact with substance misuse, criminal justice and homelessness services, then where are they? How can SMD be conceptualised for women and girls and is it feasible to arrive at a set of domains which would enable an alternative SMD profile? These were the questions a joint team from DMSS Research and Heriot Watt set out to address.

We didn’t begin from a blank slate but from a previous evidence review we’d conducted on Women and Girls at Risk. In this we’d identified a set of risk factors for women and girls and explored how these interact with gendered expectations. Extensive experience of violence and abuse is a key risk factor in women’s disadvantage and gendered pathways which means that women and girls are more likely to become visible as clients of mental health, violence and abuse and children’s services, than visible in the criminal justice system or as clients of drug and alcohol services.

Amongst those women who do fall into the drugs/crime/ homelessness categories, experiences of interpersonal violence/abuse and mental health issues are still likely to be of significance and particular gendered experiences (e.g. having been sexually exploited and having children taken into care) are likely to feature.

Risk factors are inextricably linked to social inequalities – of gender, class, ethnicity, disability and membership of other oppressed groups (including being categorised and labelled as users of welfare, mental health and criminal justice systems). We suggested that women and girls who experience SMD are likely to be those who have experienced the most relentless and toxic interpersonal consequences of the gender system. These will be women whose significant relationships since childhood have been characterised by violence and abuse; who may have had high levels of contact with institutions and services that support social inequalities; who have experienced lifelong hardship, exploitation or discrimination arising from their gender, and been part of other disadvantaged social groups compounded by poverty and restricted access to resources and opportunities. Some further research we’ve undertaken provides some powerful evidence in support of this hypothesis.

As part of the SMD and women project we also consulted with groups of women who had experienced a number of disadvantages, including migrant women, travellers, women who’d been in prison, women with learning disabilities or who had lost their children to care. We asked them which women they thought were most severely disadvantaged and what aspects of their lives had been most damaging. There was a lot of common ground across all the groups and what they had to say confirmed the central importance of violence and abuse, mental ill health and gendered expectations to understanding SMD for women.

The implications for developing a profile of women facing SMD is that a wider range of factors need to be included – particularly women’s experience of interpersonal violence and mental ill health. This brings challenges, not least because service use data in these domains is limited. Consequently, for the next phase of the project we are making use of data from surveys as well as from services to build up a picture of the nature of severe and multiple disadvantage in the lives of girls and women.

Di McNeish & Sara Scott, DMSS Research

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