A ground-breaking new report, published on 10 November, by the charity Agenda Alliance exposes the real-life impact of lack of specialist support for young women and girls who are most at risk of poverty, abuse, discrimination and poor mental health.
The study titled ‘Girls Speak: Pushed Out, Left Out’ focuses on the experience of young women with multiple unmet needs and discovered that many felt ‘pushed out and left out’ from appropriate help across services such as schools, doctors, policing and mental health provision.
Key takeaways include:
- Racial disparities and discrimination persist for girls’ school exclusions
- Young mothers, already at risk of poverty, are at the sharpest end of cost-of-living crisis
- Services unable to address an epidemic of mental health problems among girls and young women in their late teens and early twenties.
- Girls in schools and pupil referral units don’t feel safe from sexual harassment
Education: stark racial disparities for girls who are excluded from school
Exclusion rates are highest for girls from a dual heritage (mixed white and Black Caribbean) background. As part of the Girls Speak research, Agenda Alliance made a Freedom of Information request to the Department of Education which found that:
- Dual heritage girls from a mixed white and Black Caribbean background were excluded at THREE times the rate of their white British counterparts during the years 2019/2020 and 2020/2021
‘Adultification’ and Black, Asian and minoritised girls
‘Persistent disruptive behaviour’ is the most cited reason for all exclusions; however, practitioners interviewed for the study warned that girls who misbehave are often treated more punitively because they contravene gender norms, i.e. not acting in a way girls are traditionally expected to. For Black, Asian, and minoritised girls, this is made worse as they are frequently subject to a process of ‘adultification,’ viewed as more mature and ‘less innocent’ than their white peers. Similar to cases such as the 15-year-old girl known as Child Q, the Agenda Alliance research exposes racial stereotyping and discrimination for Black, Asian, and minoritised young women in the school system which lead to disproportionate numbers of formal exclusions.
Sixteen-year-old J was excluded and participates in Milk Honey Bees, an organisation which supports excluded Black and mixed white and Black African and Caribbean girls,
"Being kicked out of school at 13 made my life a hundred times worse. Now three years later I still suffer from mental issues from the way I was dismissed. I felt misunderstood and alone. What school doesn’t understand is that mixed black and black girls rarely speak up for themselves when they need help because we are expected to be strong and handle our emotions. Not understanding mixed black and black girls is a choice that impacts us for the rest of our lives."
Poverty: young mums at the sharp end of cost-of-living crisis
We know from other studies that young mothers bringing up children alone are most exposed to money pressures:
- 90% of all single parents are women. [Gingerbread (2019)]
- Half of all children in lone-parent families live in relative poverty. [Institute for Fiscal Studies (2022)]
- Annual earnings for young women aged 18 to 21 are currently 33% below the wages of young men of the same age. [Women’s Budget Group (2020)]
- In addition to economic pressures young mothers reported negative judgement because of their age, including saying their concerns about their own or their baby’s health had been dismissed by GP’s and midwives. [Young Women’s Trust (2017) What matters to young mums.]
Katy, not her real name, is aged 20 with a toddler, told Agenda Alliance,
"It’s really hard budgeting. I’m on Universal Credit, which is going down in value while the price of everything goes up every day. I’m terrified whenever I go shopping – nappies had gone up 30p the other day, the bus has gone up from £1.70 to £2.10. I’ve got bad health but I walk if I can now. I’m studying nights to try and get a job, but the basic Universal Credit just doesn’t cover everything. Sometimes my daughter asks to go to the park but there’s an ice-cream truck there and I have to explain to her, ‘we can’t go to that, next time maybe.’ You want to make your child happy and get the things they want but you’ve got to try and budget so they get the things they need. I struggle with my mental health anyway, it’s like, I feel like I’m a failure, wondering why can’t I afford to take my kid out when others can? It impacts a lot on how you feel about yourself, and how you feel about yourself as a mother."
Mental health: girls and young women fall through a growing gap in provision
Agenda Alliance heard repeated examples of missed opportunities in schools and hospitals when a girl was in mental health crisis or behaving disruptively. Mental health services for children and young people are sparse, particularly CAMHs (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services).
The report also found that when a girl or young woman needs mental health support from many professionals there is a lack of joined-up information-sharing to ensure safe care.
We know that girls in their teens and early twenties are most likely to need mental health support:
- Over a quarter of young women aged 16 to 24 have symptoms of depression or anxiety, three times the rate of boys and young men of the same age. [NHS (2016) Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey]
- Young women are more likely experience depression and anxiety than older women. [NHS (2016) Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey]
Hanna, not her real name, spoke to us about an instance when she went to hospital to be assessed for her mental health:
"I waited several hours and when they finally saw me, it felt very rushed. They didn’t ask the things I felt they should be asking. They asked, ‘How’s your life at home?’ But not specifics. They kept going around things and not being direct. They should have explained in detail what they meant by things.
After that experience nothing was resolved. We’re still in a pretty awful situation. I thought things were going to change with this service. Nothing was done and I was left feeling hopeless."
Worst for Black, Asian and minoritised girls
Mental health services were found to be letting down girls from Black, Asian and minoritised backgrounds on two counts. Not only because the provision doesn’t cater for girls specifically but because therapy fails to respond to the impact of racism on girls’ wellbeing.
Girls in schools and pupil referral units don't feel safe
Sexual harassment, everyday sexism and discrimination emerges in the new Girls Speak report as a prevalent problem for girls and young women in schools and other public services, especially in homelessness hostels, pupil referral units and probation services.
18-year-old Millie, not her real name, told a teacher about repeated harassment of a sexual nature by a male student.
"I opened up…. that I was sexually harassed and continuing to be harassed on school property. All they did was laugh. Then, [the teacher] went….'Why do you even care? Why are you even letting it bother you?' [When a police officer came into school to take a statement], he said, 'Tell me, from your point of view, what was going on?' I told him everything. I just laid it all out. I was sobbing and sobbing and sobbing. Then, he said, 'Well, to be honest with you, you just need to stop bitching and lying.'"
Common themes from interviews with Agenda Alliance show:
- Young women and girls felt victim-blamed when seeking help for violence, abuse and harassment
- Young women and girls are most at risk of harassment from peers and staff in pupil referral units where girls are outnumbered by boys.
- Many young women reported self-excluding themselves from services, left at further risk and unsupported. They told us they feel they must ‘fend for themselves’.
Earlier research by Agenda Alliance found 17% of young women aged 25-34 have experienced sexual harassment whilst seeking help from a public service such as a job centre, hostel or mental health hospital.
Recently we wrote a letter to the Guardian.
Public services must do better, amid fears for threatened spending cuts
The ‘Girls Speak’ report clearly demonstrates the real-life impact of overstretched services, the aftermath of Covid and lack of targeted support for girls and young women. Girls and young women at risk of poverty, abuse and poor mental health are being pushed out and left out, forced into further risk and harm.
New Agenda Alliance figures obtained by a Freedom of Information request found:
- 60% of local authorities do not provide specific services for girls and young women
- 90% of local authorities do not provide any specific services for Black, Asian and minoritised girls and young women.
These findings serve as a warning call as the government weighs up spending cuts of around £40 billion in the autumn statement.
Agenda Alliance demands that:
- The Minister for Women and Equalities be made a standalone Cabinet level post with a new responsibility for girls and young women with multiple unmet needs
- Public services develop anti-racist and trauma-informed practice that tackles the linked inequalities that many girls and young women face
- Suitable funding is allocated to gender-specific youth services to improve overstretched and overburdened services
- All local authorities uniformly collate data and information on girls and young women with multiple unmet needs within their areas to improve support for the most at-risk girls and young women
- The government must prioritise prevention and early intervention for girls and young women at-risk of to end the cycle of trauma and harm.
Commenting on the Agenda Alliance’s Girls Speak report, Chief Executive Indy Cross said:
"It is deeply concerning that many of the girls and young women in this report told us that instead of finding the right help they needed to navigate away from risk, they sustained harm from services. Our report highlights the urgent need to improve the situation, which will worsen as the cost-of-living crisis continues.
All of us must listen first. And then respond to the voices of young Black and dual heritage women who’ve been unfairly kicked out of school; hear what young mums living in poverty need to set them and their children up for success; provide suitable, properly funded mental health support for young women and girls after Covid; and make schools and pupil referral units safe places, free from sexual harassment.
It’s time for all public services to cater for the specific issues facing girls and young women today, especially those most at risk from poverty, abuse and poor mental health. The girls and young women who took part in this report, and thousands of others like them, must be heard, not harmed."
Ebinehita Iyere is the author of new book, ‘Girlhood Unfiltered’ and Founder of Milk Honey Bees, which supports excluded Black and mixed white and Black African and Caribbean girls and those at risk of exclusion:
"It has always been the right time to provide targeted support for Black and mixed white and Black African and Caribbean girls in schools. However there has been an invisibility around their actual needs. The harmful stereotypes and adultification these girls experience negatively impacts their wellbeing and educational achievements. When they’re not afforded spaces that acknowledge who they are and who they want to be, how they present and how they feel, this all alludes to them that they don’t matter. They’re not afforded the same childhood experiences as their white counterparts.
This is why Milk Honey Bees is important in the work we do in ensuring they have a voice and a safe place to feel accepted and listened to, and to have positive experiences. Our new book Girlhood Unfiltered, which features essays from twenty real teenage girls, is just one way we are ensuring the voices of Black girls are heard."