Pulling together for girls

Our latest guest blogger Gail Wilson, of charity Up-2-Us, calls for a change in attitudes and focus towards girls, following the recent ‘Pulling together for girls’ event.

Up-2-Us recently put on an event to profile the needs of high risk and vulnerable girls and young women and to get our partners and other interested individuals talking about how we can work better to meet the challenges they face.

The day was insightfully chaired by Tam Baillie Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People and began with an opening input from the Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskill about the Scottish Government’s commitment to ending violence towards girls and women with the 2014 Equally Safe strategy.

CEO of Up-2-Us Olive Arens, Time for Change workers and young women made an illustrated personal presentation of the issues they experienced. Nora read a poem she’d written about living away from home and how she missed her mum the most, Kayleigh wrote about her unstable housing – going from unit to unit, from secure to secure and ending up homeless, and Lisa told us about her struggles with drugs and her goals for the future. Chief Inspector Graham Goulden for the Violence Reduction Unit highlighted the need to change male perspectives about women and toxic stereotyping, while Scottish Prison Service Unit Manager Linda Kincaid represented young women who are cyclically trapped in prison by lack of support for their multiple needs both there and in the community. Together with young woman Kimberley, I presented on mental health, from Kimberly’s and an agency perspective.

After these inputs over 100 delegates shared views of the main challenges facing high risk girls and young women. They spoke about lack of resources, for instance lack of services outwith 9 to 5 hours and for those at transitional stages between child and adult services, difficulty in engaging with ‘young people’ and between agencies; sexist and punishment centred societal culture; and poor access to mental health services.

After lunch Professor Michele Burman and Dr Susan Batchelor for SCCJR at the University of Glasgow reviewed the research about girls. Highlights included the call for a gendered and age specific approach to Youth Justice, but not allowing girls to be defined by their needs and deeds; and the danger of medicalising young women’s issues.

Group discussion moved on to find solutions to the previously identified challenges. General themes emerging were: the consistency of the relationship between worker and young woman; more training with input from young women themselves; flexible and accessible services particularly in health and support 24/7; commitment to resources for such services; better multiagency working to improve communication and coordination; parent and family support to promote early intervention; improved post 16 support for those accommodated; and more understanding of transitions between child and adult services, making the most out of alternatives to remand and short sentence in using the Children’s Hearing System to its full potential.

David Orr for CYCJ concluded the day aptly. He began by reiterating part of Tam Baillie’s introduction about how traumatising it is to have your life story repeated in review meetings or with new workers. He liked Sam’s ‘busy bee’ presentation in the morning about residential workers and felt hopeful about the role the new Children & Young Persons Act has in reinforcing how lived experiences can and should continue to contribute to the development of future policies.

What I took from the day was the atmosphere for change, the keenness of those attending to be informed and work with colleagues across agencies to keep girls out of prison and provide the intensive and flexible services they need. There was a lot of talk about early intervention, but I think we need to be careful that we don’t forget the minority group whose day to day reality and life chances are already poor. They need time and support in the moments of chaos and despair in order to encourage success in good moments too.

A reference to ‘Gale is dead’ by Olive in the morning reminded us that change in attitudes and values approaches is overdue.  What I found was that in a day about girls, many struggled to keep the focus on girls.  The day was not about excluding boys and while solutions for all is no doubt helpful it somewhat misses the point. High risk and vulnerable girls are already overlooked because of their numbers, so if we want to advocate for their gendered and age specific needs, we need to be more conscious of our words and speak about ‘girls’ and not ‘young people’.

About our blogger

Gail Wilson is Research & Policy Officer for the Up-2-Us. This girls and young women initiative is about the challenges and solutions of working with very high risk and vulnerable girls and young women and creating a platform for their voices to be heard by services, funders and politicians.