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The Women's Sector Crisis: Government and Charity Sector Must Act Now

In this fortnight, when the government is both drawing up its spending plans and determining its strategy on violence against women and girls, it's time to decide whether this will be a turning point - or another milestone in the demise of services which truly respond to the needs of abused women.

Eaves, the London-based women's charity, closed last week. Eaves was founded by survivors of male violence, and always struggled to gain recognition of the appalling suffering of some of the most abused women. Those who are almost invisible - and when they are seen, so often dismissed, blamed, victimised by the systems which supposedly exist to protect us. The struggle for funding was part of its existence for years. Now that struggle has been lost.

In this fortnight, when the government is both drawing up its spending plans and determining its strategy on violence against women and girls, it's time to decide whether this will be a turning point - or another milestone in the demise of services which truly respond to the needs of abused women.

Eaves transformed lives, and as such was one among hundreds of organisations that have grown up since the 1970s around the country. It had a far higher profile than most - yet even Eaves, widely known in the charity sector, by funders and by politicians, did not attract the patronage of "high net-worth" donors or celebrities, or government bailouts.

Wherever you stand on the politics and policies of austerity, the closure of Eaves is not simply about that. All charities can make a case for more money. This is about whether the will exists in government, the charity sector and society to understand and respond to the needs of women suffering and fleeing from male violence, irrespective of the wider economic climate. Are we going to continue both to work for the social and cultural change which is essential to stop the violence, and to support individuals towards recovery? Or we are going to retreat to a trench from which we 'manage the risks' - risks which increasingly drive public sector spending decisions?

Let's look at women's services for a moment. I joined Women's Aid two and a half years ago, and claim no credit for the extraordinary work of members of our federation. I've been taken aback by their sheer skill and resourcefulness, the transformation of lives they make possible, and the appalling hardships they endure.

Many of those who volunteer, work in and lead these services are themselves survivors. These organisations were often started by women who had fled abuse, who had to fight to establish a service for others like them - in some cases literally squatting a building to found a refuge. Unlike many services now provided by charities, they've never been "contracted out" out by local councils: they've never been "in". These are genuine, grassroots organisations. Gradually, as pots of state funding have been made available, they have accepted them gratefully, and statutory funding has become a large slice of their income. And now, those statutory bodies are taking that funding - as though through part-funding a service they now own it - and are now tendering it to the cheapest bidder.

Many larger charities demand, and still get, "full cost recovery" from local government contracts, allowing for overheads such as research or business development functions to support their inexorable growth. Yet I have literally never seen a local specialist women's service that achieves full cost recovery from a funder. This means that, at a time when marketing is key to a charity's survival, they lose. What they fought for, established and developed, is now just one more "lot" in a tender which a multi-million pound non-specialist organisation is happy to compete for and win.

On top of this, the sexism meted out to women's organisations has shocked me. Typical comments , the likes of which I had never heard before joining this sector include: "You can come, but leave the ideology at the door" (a senior government official - obviously believing that only the feminist in the room has any ideological motivation); "I want all my friends there too'" (a major funder, in response to my asking whether a specialist black women's organisation could be part of a meeting).

I've heard local commissioners complaining that finding out the needs of local women means inviting "all these different women, all talking about the needs of this and that BME and LGBT group" - as though finding out about diverse needs isn't fundamental to the commissioning task. I have cited research evidence which proves the unique quality of specialist women's services, only to be told "yes - but it would have more weight if it wasn't done by a feminist", and even, once, "you know, what you really need is research by a man".

No wonder women are angry. I'm pretty angry myself.

Let's be clear on what can be done, austerity or no austerity. There is no doubt several government departments will have funding labelled "violence against women", whatever the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review. When faced with closures of specialist services, ministers always talk about the £40 million allocated in the last CSR, so let's be clear: none of this went to support specialist services. The driver of both government policy and funding has been to shift to a system based on managing risk, not meeting needs, which has made specialist services even more vulnerable and often leaves women misunderstood and even blamed. I have written in detail about this here. So, first, this shift must be reversed. Whatever is allocated in this month's CSR must be used to safeguard the knowledge and experience that is contained in specialist women's services.

Second, the government must break its slavish adherence to the "localism" doctrine that means ministers apparently can't influence local authority spending decisions. Actually, they do find a way to tell local government what to do when priorities are on the line: potholes, for example. There are many in government who are dismayed at the dismantling of women's services by local authorities. So, act on it. This must include a completely new way of allocating funding to refuges, which can only function safely as a national network, allowing women to flee across local authority boundaries: a safety net which is being unpicked piece by piece by localised commissioning.

Third, the charity sector must take a long, hard look at itself. Charities are under fire for being too much like businesses, losing touch with both donors and beneficiaries. Yet the response to criticism is too often to complain at negative media coverage, rather than to put the house in order.

For many large, national charities, the objective - apparently without irony - is to become the "preferred provider" to public sector commissioners. But there is a choice here, about what sort of charity sector we all want to be part of. It's easy for large charities to take over the services which the women's sector has fought to establish. All they have to do is pay lip-service to a gender-neutral narrative, and present a cheaper, one-size-fits-all alternative. But they don't have to. The organisations representing the sector could provide leadership here, and bring charities - large and small - together to take control of the sector's destiny before it's too late.

It will be too late, unless these three actions happen soon. They don't require the unpicking of economic policy. If they don't happen, we can only conclude that the government and the wider charity sector don't care.

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