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Report: stop gender-neutral policy-making

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Hearing Women's Voices: why women 2018, The Women's Resource Centre, WRC, report, women-only spaces, Recognise that women-only services are better able to meet the needs of women.

The Women’s Resource Centre (WRC) has now published the report which is a follow-up to their ‘why women?’ campaign launched in November 2006.

This research was carried out to highlight the importance of and the need for women’s organisations now.

For despite the clear need for specialist organisations that work in a particular field, or with a specific community of women, or both, in the current funding and policy environment organisations can find themselves losing out in funding to larger, generic organisations or being pressured to deliver services to men.

For the report, Hearing women’s voices: Why women 2018, the Women’s Resource Centre worked with four women’s organisations to give a sense of the diversity of the women’s voluntary and community sector: the Claudia Jones Organisation; Sisters of Frida; WISH and the Women and Girls Network.

And the themes that emerged from the focus groups were that women-only is essential, safety was of major importance to women, being a specialist organisation meant that there was clear understanding of service users’ needs, and belonging was very important to the women using these services.

And the women talked about how essential women-only space was for women to feel safe, to build trust, and to get their needs met, how they felt more confident, able to speak up and have a voice.

Being with ‘just women’ meant participants felt very different and they strongly believed that women should have the choice of women-only services and spaces and valued the distinctive ethos and atmosphere of women-only services.

Safety was of major importance, and this included being safe from men and the impact of male violence; being safe to deal with the impact of gender-based violence; being safe to develop relationships with staff or peers; and being safe to express themselves. Services or groups provided a unique safe space that was led by and for women who shared aspects of identity or lived experience.

Being a specialist organisation meant that there was clear understanding of service users’ needs, and those needs were met through a range of effective, tailored support. And key principles of effective support emerged across all groups, including feeling welcomed, being non-judgemental, being believed, working from where women are at, and supporting women to empower themselves.

Belonging was very important to women using services. The groups talked about how it felt to belong somewhere; how that challenged isolation and loneliness; how they are not alone; and that the service felt like an anchor, something steady and always there for them.

It was also an opportunity to belong somewhere that welcomed diversity, to find role models, to support community building and cohesion, and to create space for women to challenge stigma.

The women also talked about changes they had made that they directly attributed to accessing the women’s organisation; changes including gaining confidence, getting a job, and vastly improving their health.

They also talked about what they believed would have happened to them if the women’s organisations did not exist; a number of women said they would have killed themselves. Others said they would have gone back to drugs, or prison, or been isolated or depressed.

While funding for women’s organisations was not asked about, women in each focus group raised this issue.

Women using services knew of women-only services that were cut or severely reduced, and they were concerned about what would happen to the services they used – not just for themselves, but for other women who could be making use of women’s organisations. WomenAnd they talked about the need for more specialist services, not fewer.

The Women’s Resource Centre, a national umbrella body for women’s charities – with over 500 members, is now calling upon decision makers and funders – including the government and service commissioners – to:

Recognise that women-only services are better able to meet the needs of women, particularly the most disadvantaged women, than generic or mixed services, and support this in terms of policy, approach to commissioning and funding;

Ensure the value of specialist provision is reflected in commissioning frameworks and that smaller, specialist women’s organisations are not excluded from delivering services by an over-reliance on ‘gender-neutral’ and large-scale commissioning approaches;

Improve the collection of data disaggregated by sex and other ‘protected characteristics’ and to analyse this data in order to understand and address women’s diverse needs;

Effectively consult with women and women’s organisations and base decision making on these consultations, including the adoption of Theories of Change and impact measurement;

Stop ‘gender-neutral’ policy making, which fails to recognise and address women’s needs and the disadvantages that they face, and in addition fails to meet the requirements of the Equality Act 2010;

Fund specialist women’s organisations, as required by the last CEDAW committee’s concluding observations (2013); and

Implement Special Measures to ensure that core funding is available to address the current reduction in women’s organisations and services.

This research has illustrated the importance of women-only services to women’s experiences of engaging with women’s organisations and to women’s lives.

And women’s organisations, and their understanding of structural and systemic discrimination against women, are needed to combat the reality of gender inequality.

And an analysis of power in gendered relations is a necessary part of understanding and meeting the needs of women. This underpins the work that specialist women’s organisations do, and how they respond to gender inequality and in meeting women’s needs.

To read the full report, Hearing women’s voices: Why women 2018, click here.

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