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Artillery Row

Women deserve clarity on single-sex spaces

No one should have to wonder what kind of help they will receive

When a woman is subjected to violence and abuse from a man she loves, she learns quickly to navigate her life through snippets of secret freedom. There are many creative methods that women use to survive, to gain a glimpse of a life liberated from the man who has subjected her to untold amounts of pain. It may be freedom from the memory of a rape that causes body freezing flashbacks, or managing an exit from a current violent partner. In any case, it is a monumental act of courage when women reach out for support to organisations working in the male violence against women sector. 

The moment they do, they should receive an honest transparent response about what sort of support they will receive and the spaces they will receive them in. There should be no hidden agendas — no small print. The women’s movement should provide spaces and services that model the antithesis of the memories and reality of living in fear of men.

Instead, female victims sometimes must navigate another layer of secrecy and hidden agendas, and it doesn’t come from abusive men. Not all organisations in the male violence against women and girls’ sector are being transparent about whether their provision is truly women only. 

Last week I was asked by a victim if I knew whether the service in her local area would guarantee her a woman-only space. I’ve been asked this before, and I know I am not alone. Other women in my movement have been asked the same questions from frightened victims. It appears a network of gender critical women has sprung up from all four corners of the British Isles — acting as a free ad-hoc triage service for victims to find out whether the service they seek support from is single sex. This shouldn’t be happening. All charities take public money; it is incumbent upon us to be publicly honest about what we do with that money. That includes the most basic premise of our provision — is it single sex or not? 

Only two umbrella bodies have publicly defended single sex spaces

In the most recent legal briefing I have seen on applying the Equality Act 2010’s single sex exception rule for female victims of male violence, the advice is to explicitly and publicly state what policy the organisation practices, whether that is mixed sex (trans inclusive) or single sex. 

I know many smaller organisations state their positions; I know CEOs who have continuously stuck their necks out to protect single sex spaces and been vociferously bullied and vilified for it in their local areas. I also notice that on the whole, the largest frontline organisations do not make their policy known to victims, either via their websites or social media. It really isn’t that much to ask for organisations operating with millions of pounds worth of public money to be honest with victims, is it? 

Only two umbrella bodies have publicly defended single sex spaces: Women’s Resource Centre, and Women’s Aid Federation England. In opposition we have Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland, who insist all services should be “trans inclusive” and thus advocate for mixed sex provision for female victims. Rape Crisis England and Wales and SafeLives have still not made their positions known. 

Women’s Aid Federation England have a very large reach and a lot of influence. I know women across the UK were relieved when they came out in defence of single sex spaces for female victims. Considering their policy statement was on behalf of their members, I’d like to see them take every opportunity to open up the discussion publicly. 

At a Women’s Aid policy conference in February this year, vital issues were discussed and debated, including: the inadequate support for migrant women, victims’ experiences within the family courts, and criminal justice responses to male violence against women. You’d think a policy conference would be the ideal place to discuss the thornier policy issues. Why was there nothing scheduled to address the debate around single sex spaces for female victims?

Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity was that Keir Starmer attended the conference, but women were not allowed to ask him questions directly. Apparently Mel B did a great job — she is a survivor herself and a Women’s Aid ambassador — but with due respect, she doesn’t work in services. When we have the leader of the opposition sitting in front of hundreds of women who work on the coal face of domestic abuse services every day, with a general election looming, I absolutely expect a feminist conference to open him up to challenge from the floor. 

Politicians should be there to impress us, not the other way round

If I had the opportunity, I would ask Starmer to confirm that it is still the Labour Party’s intention to reform the Gender Recognition Act 2004. I’d ask him to tell me explicitly how on earth he thinks there can be a balance of advocating for a system where men self-ID as women, whilst simultaneously protecting single sex spaces. I’d ask him why there was no obvious action taken against his male Labour MPs who were aggressively intimidating all the female MPs speaking up in favour of the UK government’s section 35 action against gender reform in Scotland. Finally, I’d ask him why he insists on repeatedly referring to “safe spaces” rather than “single sex” spaces. Is it because he doesn’t understand the Equality Act 2010, or is it a linguistic lawyerly trick? Either way, can he stop it, please? It’s very annoying. 

At a feminist conference the selectively invited politicians (no matter the party) should be there to impress us, not the other way round. They should absolutely be expected to answer our questions on how they intend to protect women’s most basic rights if they want us to support their upcoming election campaigns. 

Thanks to grassroots women’s groups in the UK, there have been seismic shifts on the sex vs. gender debate. We could be guilty of feeling that our work is done, but from my perspective, the battle to protect women and girls’ single sex spaces is far from over. The feminist-led anti-men’s violence movement won’t raise their voices on the most fundamental of rights for female victims. It should come as no surprise, then, that the IPSOS poll released in March 2023 reports, “the share of the British public who say they are scared to speak out and advocate for the equal rights of women because of what might happen to them has doubled since 2017, rising from 14 per cent to 29 per cent.”

The feminist movement should be modelling a “no fear” approach in advocating for women’s rights. Different organisations operating in the male violence against women movement have different approaches. Some advocate mixed sex; some prioritise women. Victims deserve to know what those positions are

What I do know is that the feminists who taught me everything, when I came into this sector at the age of 19, didn’t operate on platitudes and politeness when it came to women’s rights. They definitely didn’t hide their services from female victims. 

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