Three Years Of Our Young Women’s Service- what we’ve learned

June 5th, 2020

Our VAWG Lead Jess Macdonald looks back on three years of supporting young women

Today marks three years since we launched our Young Women’s Service in South London. In that time, we have doubled the size of our service and now cover three of the Major Trauma Centres in London as well as having a Violence Against Women and Girls Lead (that’s me) for our organisation. We have received referrals for over 140 young women with 119 of these young women consenting to support including completing safety plans as well as linking in with their wider networks.

In that time, we have learnt so much about ourselves as individual practitioners as well the challenges that the young women we support face so here are three things that we would like to share with you.

1. Joint working is key

We have had the opportunity to work with some incredible organisations both locally and internationally. We have sent our specialist Young Women’s Workers to learning events across the UK as well as in Cape Town & Bogota. We work every day with our inspirational colleagues from across the NHS (be that the emergency department, sexual health, maternity or primary-care colleagues). We have joint worked with our colleagues from across Redthread to ensure that the young women we support are getting everything possible from us as an organisation.
These platforms have provided the space for us to share the incredible knowledge that working with young women has given us as well as learn from other’s practice and experience. We strongly believe that learning is something to be shared so that on a much wider scale we can support young women in the ways that they tell us work for them.

2. Language is crucial

The way young women are spoken about as well as the way they speak about themselves tells us so much about what her experience has been like. It is so important we move away from phrases like “She’s a non-engager” and instead place the emphasis on us as professionals, “We haven’t managed to engage her”. The emphasis must always be on us to demonstrate worth. Our offer may not come at the right time in a young woman’s life so it’s important that we make sure she has the experience to know that we are safe and that it’s ok to ask for support when she is ready.
We need to feel comfortable with gendered words and positively model this for young women. Feminism is not a dirty word and applies to everyone. Vagina is not a term to be whispered or (worse) not said at all. If we as practitioners aren’t comfortable using language in this way, then why should young women be?

3. There is no better expert in a young woman’s life than herself

There is no such thing as “giving a young woman a voice”. She already has one! If she is choosing not to tell us something, then it will be for a reason. It may be that she isn’t sure if she trusts us yet. It may be that she knows that disclosing her experiences will make her life harder or make her more vulnerable. It may be for a million other reasons, but she is the expert in this. We have to take our time to get to know her and her experiences.
‘Ashleigh’ was 17 when she was referred to us by the sexual health clinic following a disclosure that she was experiencing pressure from her ‘partner’ to “be nice” to a number of his friends. She was living in a semi-independent placement and had multiple professionals in her network but felt that she couldn’t really talk to them. Initially, ‘Ashleigh’ wasn’t sure about support. Over the next three months, she spent time with the Young Women’s Worker and explored what we could offer her. Over time, she felt able to talk openly about her experiences and was supported to share these with her network. She told us that the reason that she chose to share her experiences was because there was no pressure on her to tell us everything and because she trusted what we would do with the disclosures.

Every single young woman that we have met has helped shape the service to be what it is and I want to take this opportunity to thank every single young woman who has trusted us with their story. We are humbled by your brilliance and will continue to strive to make you the centre of everything that we do.

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