Undervalued and Overlooked: The Under-Resourcing of the Sector

There are numerous challenges, and a lot of them relate to the under-resourcing of our sector and, in some cases, what I'd call the dismantling of our sector. I want to talk about some of the things that might be leading to that. The first thing that I pick up everywhere I go and from everyone I speak to is a complete lack of valuing the work that our sector does. We know that the work women's organisations do is life-changing and, on many occasions, lifesaving.

And I want to say that when I talk about the women's sector, I am talking about ‘led by and for’ organisations. In case some of you do not know what that means, although I suspect you will, we are talking about organisations that are led by the women with whom they work. So, if you are talking about Turkish-speaking women, then we are talking about Turkish women's organisations who speak Turkish. I want to clarify that because it is fundamental.

A Shift Towards Gender Neutrality and Gender Politics Within the Women's Sector

Our work is massively undervalued and ignored. Some of us are silenced or not listened to. And we have been moving towards gender neutralisation of the work of the women's sector. And by this, I mean that policymaking has taken a gender-neutral approach. We know that many of our members have been forced to provide services to men as well as women for a number of years now, and of course, we must not forget the inability of the government to name violence against women and girls in the Domestic Abuse Bill. 

Competitive Commissioning and the Dismantling of the Sector

Along with competitive commissioning, we now see work traditionally carried out by, and indeed started by, women's organisations being delivered by generic organisations such as housing associations, generic voluntary sector organisations or even private sector organisations. We also see the traditional work of ‘led by and for’ Black women's organisations being attempted to be delivered by white women's organisations. This is highly problematic.

The women's sector grew out of the women's liberation movement, which over decades had developed a structural analysis of women's sex-based oppression and, within that, thanks to numerous Black feminists and their work, a structural analysis of racism. Those things are critically important to the way that we run our organisations and the way that we work with women. 

The Loss of a Collective Voice

Back in the day, it was not ‘us and them’, and so the workers were not somehow separated or put on a pedestal compared to the service users. We worked together as a group. That has gotten lost in some organisations, where this idea of ‘professionalisation of the sector’ has taken hold, and I challenge that notion because the most professional way of working is simply to meet the needs of the women. That is what professionalism is. So, this kind of move to undervalue us, to act like anybody can do our work, is problematic. It is leading to disinvestment in the sector, but we face internal challenges as a sector.

It is exceedingly difficult for us to change the external environment. I would say that we have actually lost ground in the last ten years in a number of ways, and so we need to do something different to create social change. But to achieve that, we need to reflect upon what we are doing, how we are doing it and how we are, in places, becoming de-politicised as a movement. Because the women's sector is not only about delivering lifesaving services but also about actually achieving social change for women based upon a human rights approach. I have seen many changes over the last 10 to 15 years, which I do not think are good changes.

What is our response to competitive tendering? What are we doing about it? How do we address that? Do we join in and compete with each other, or in the tradition of feminist work, do we try to create new ways of doing things? That has always been a critical ingredient of the women's sector, the creativity to go forward in uncharted territories because we do not have a system anywhere that we can say is about women's human rights. If you look globally, women are oppressed, and so we have got to get braver in the way that we address the system that we work within that seeks to divide us and diminish us. 

Building Solidarity and Addressing the Systemic Divide

One thing I really think is critical in that is solidarity. Imagine, women are over half the population of this country, yet still, our rights are being rolled backwards. Why? When I look at new funding announcements. They mention all the protected characteristics under the Equality Act, but they fail to mention sex and they fail to mention women, so it seems to me that we are not actually being named as an oppressed group anymore. That might be because we are not a minority, I do not know, but it is problematic. So, we need to look at the internal work. That, for me, is the opportunity. The internal work that we can do to build our solidarity, and with the Black Lives Matter movement, we now have an opportunity to do the anti-racist work that seems to have been left to one side. I really, really believe that if we can build our collective voice in support of all women, not just the women who look like ourselves but the most marginalised women, we have a much stronger chance of overturning oppression and making gains for our sector. 

A Journey Towards Equality and Empowerment

It's clear that the road ahead for women's organisations is not without its challenges. Yet, there is hope and opportunity in the solidarity of the sector and the ongoing fight for human rights and social justice. By continuing to advocate for women, particularly those who are the most marginalised, the women's sector can navigate the ever-changing landscape and continue its mission of empowering women and creating a more equitable society for all.

Vivienne Hayes

CEO, Women's Resource Centre