Voluntary sector organisations working to end violence against women in the UK are both challenging the system that allows violence and abuse to continue, and celebrating women’s survival. At the same time, we are facing the profound impact of the current funding climate on organisations and the services we provide.
The devolution of voluntary sector funding from central government to local authorities has led to a lack of consistency in levels and types of funding. For example, many local authorities across the UK are moving away from grant aid to the commissioning of services through tendering and other contract funding, leading to instability within the sector and the loss of essential services. One example is refuge accommodation. Rather than strengthening smaller, local organisations to respond to local need, a few, large organisations are providing services to communities in which they often have no previous connection or local knowledge. In other cases, specialist services for women affected by violence and abuse are being taken over by housing associations or other non-specialist providers, with the loss of the independence and expertise held within the voluntary sector.
Recent research carried out by End Violence Against Women (EVAW) earlier this year found that services for women who have experienced violence and abuse are ‘chronically under-funded or simply do not exist’ in many parts of the country. The EVAW Map of Gaps report highlighted that one in four local authorities in the UK have no specialist support services, with specialist services for ethnic minority women in just one in 10 local authorities in England, Wales and Scotland.
The Map of Gaps report also highlighted that while the government has put some resources into responding to violence against women, 60% of new services in 2008 were in the statutory sector, with a focus on incidents reported to the criminal justice system. As we know that the majority of survivors do not report their abuse to the police, these new services, while welcome, are accessible only to a minority. In fact, some areas of the country (for example, Yorkshire and the East of England) do not even have access to a statutory sector Sexual Assault Referral Centre , let alone a specialist voluntary sector service.
Services for women and children affected by sexual violence are especially vulnerable to the current crisis, as are services for Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic and Refugee (BAMER) women, for whom the provision of services is in a dire situation. Organisations providing specialist services to BAMER women and communities are struggling for survival as organisations are losing funding in favour of generic providers who may have little or no experience of working with the issues facing BAMER women and children.
Many Rape Crisis centres across England and Wales also face closure due to a lack of adequate funding, which will leave more areas of the country with no specialist sexual violence services. The 2008 CEDAW Thematic Report on violence against women found that ‘Rape Crisis Centres are historically chronically under-funded, with many areas of the country having no provision at all and others only one evening a week’. As is stated in Map of Gaps, ‘the overall impact on survivors’ health and wellbeing is immeasurable’.
In addition, recent equalities legislation is being misinterpreted by some local authorities to force voluntary sector women’s organisations to also provide services to men. Under the Gender Equality Duty all public bodies and organisations providing services on their behalf have a legal duty to ensure equality of access to services for men and women. As Fiona McTaggart, co-chair of the women's parliamentary Labour party, has stated, ‘there are some local authorities who interpret equalities to mean that a refuge has to provide for men, not only for women ... There are some stupidnesses developing in the system that nobody intended’.
These ‘stupidnesses’ stem from an incorrect understanding and application of the Duty. Under the Gender Equality Duty, ‘equality’ is not defined as ‘sameness’. Therefore, it is acknowledged that women and men experience different barriers and pathways to accessing services and may, in fact, require different and/or separate services to meet their specific needs. In forcing women-only organisations to provide services to men within generic service provision, local authorities and other funding bodies are incorrectly enforcing the Duty and are effectively using equalities legislation to further discriminate against already vulnerable women.
All of these factors, along with the instability that comes with a possible change in national government, are destabilising the women’s sector and causing long-term, serious damage to much-needed services. Organisations are already experiencing cuts in funding levels, the relocation of their services to larger, stronger organisations and a reduction in their ability to provide services to the same, high standard.