Strength in numbers: empowering women through partnership

A consortium of 12 organisations is bringing 250 years of experience to support vulnerable women and girls across Leeds, says Ruth Mulryne, director at Womens Health Matters

When a nationwide Big Lottery Fund initiative for women and girls was launched in 2015, some forward-thinking women in the Leeds voluntary sector started to think big in response.

Instead of applying individually to the fund, a consortium of 12 Leeds women and girls organisations, supported by Leeds City Council, came together keen to collaborate, responding to the theme of empowerment. Collectively the partners had supported 7,000 women the previous year with an annual combined turnover of £3.3m and 250 years of relevant experience.

Women’s Lives Leeds (WLL) was born – a consortium determined to bring women and girls issues high on local agendas.

It is a unique partnership with specialisms across the partners including domestic violence, mental health, sexual health, sex work, trafficking, child sexual exploitation and education. We have come together to support the most vulnerable women and girls in Leeds in the most disadvantaged communities. We know poverty, abuse and violence are inequalities that are disproportionately suffered by women, which contributes to the picture of poor mental health; insecure housing and work; and disability, combined with high levels of caring responsibilities.

WLL3

Strength as a partnership

Our first success, led on this occasion by Leeds Women’s Aid, was to secure £2m over four years from Big Lottery Fund to deliver the partnership’s vision that many more women and girls in Leeds will have their needs met and be empowered to lead safer, healthier lives.

Our mission and plans

Our mission is to ensure that the most vulnerable women and girls in Leeds have improved and extended access to the services and support they want, when they choose;

to ensure that the needs of women and girls with multiple and complex issues are better supported through a holistic response from services, and that they are able to function more effectively and independently in society;

to ensure that women and girls are empowered to support their peers and influence service delivery, development and design across the city.

Our plans for this first project were therefore diverse and ambitious. They included:

  • Complex needs workers providing specialist support for women with multiple and complex needs
  • Community development workers providing light touch support, undertaking information sharing, awareness raising activities and signposting women and girls to appropriate services within the city
  • A virtual Women’s Centre providing the first Leeds online one-stop shop for everything women and girls need to know about accessing the support and services they may need
  • Service user involvement and participation involving women and girls in multiple ways in the design, delivery, governance and evaluation of the project using a true co-production model
  • Developing peer support across the city including sharing best practice and establishing a peer support forum
  • A new Women and Girls Forum enabling women and girls to come together and share ideas on how to develop services with priorities set by them.

The learning never ends

The first meeting of interested organisations took place in July 2015; in May 2016 we officially launched Women’s Lives Leeds; our first Big Lottery funded project launched in November 2016 for four years. In the project’s first year we aim to reach 1,657 women and girls at risk.

For Womens Health Matters and our partners, if we had all applied to the national Women and Girls Big Lottery Fund some – though maybe none – would have achieved funding. Together we have been successful with each of the partners delivering different strands of the work. This may not mean initially significant income per partner, but we are ambitious and see our lottery project as the first of many joint ventures to come. Each partner also benefits from the profile that the partnership is generating – both locally and beyond. Ultimately, the bigger picture for women and girls is key here.

We have 12 vocal partners round the table, each committed to the success of WLL but also to developing and sustaining our own organisations. All but one are sub £1m income per year, but deliver vital and diverse services in Leeds.

We have robust and challenging conversations about what we do and how we develop. When do we collaborate for funding, when do we inevitably compete? Some of these conversations continue. We’ve created however a clear partnership structure – an appointed chair, sub groups of member organisations, a partnership agreement designed to promote understanding between all the partners involved, and a memorandum of understanding that sets out the obligations and entitlements of all signatories.  Our first co-delivered project has a lead agency and new staff based centrally and at partners to deliver it.

Our shared passion and commitment to women and girls in Leeds has kept us enthused and able to find our path through different perspectives and yes, sometimes challenging debates.

“Women’s Lives Leeds provides a great opportunity not only to directly deliver positive outcomes for women with complex needs, but also enables a platform for the 12 organisations to influence policy and strategy in Leeds. We are very optimistic about our ability as a partnership to generate the system change needed for women.”

Gemma Sciré, chair of Women’s Lives Leeds and CEO of Basis Yorkshire

www.womenslivesleeds.org.uk

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