In this guest blog Becky Rogerson MBE, Director of Wearside Women in Need, explores the challenges faced by Women’s services and what the future could look like. Opinions are the author’s own.
We live in confusing times that can distract from the important task of tackling the endemic crime of violence against women. New legislation abounds, with additional laws and revised definitions trying to bolster a struggling criminal justice system and associated safeguarding procedures. The statistics are grim, with the police responding to an incident every minute and a homicide rate that records six women a month being killed by their partners or someone they know; a statistic that remains unchanged despite all efforts.
The third sector is the main provider of Women’s services, delivering on behalf of a range of statutory partners. There are advantages and disadvantages to this forced partnership arrangement, as the sector struggles to retain independence from its paymaster with varying relationships and power imbalances.
Challenges for the sector
National and local strategies overlap in addressing domestic abuse, sexual violence, stalking, harassment and an array of other offences, with an overarching strategy titled ‘Violence Against Women and Girls’, which includes boys and men in the small print. For Women’s Services, this presents huge challenges as we also need to provide ‘women only spaces’, prioritise safety, work within a trauma-informed framework and respond to a year on year rise in demand.
The Women’s sector is also in the midst of some aggressive debates around transgender rights, some of which are challenging the use of the word ‘Woman’ in relation to gender identity. I would argue at this point that individual rights shouldn’t ‘trump’ one another; a children’s charity doesn’t deny the importance of adult or disability services, they just do different things.
Funding is always at the top of the list, there’s usually not enough of it, whilst short-term contracts and grants, with disproportionate monitoring terms detract from the core business. Few charities in the Women’s Sector could make a ten-year financial forecast (or even a five year) which disables robust business planning and sustainability.
Mental health needs have increased significantly since the Covid-19 pandemic, closely followed by the cost-of-living crisis, which brings additional challenges for victims and survivors. We have also seen a worrying increase in child to parent violence in the last two years.
The term ‘mental health’ of course means different things to different people and the context matters. I tend to use the term ‘mental well-being’, as being exposed to violence and coercive control over long periods of time produces a very understandable deterioration in well-being across a range of measures. Recently, I read with interest a wonderful blog by Liz Gadd, NPC’s Strategy Principal, that highlighted the need to look at more holistic, accessible and future proof ways to promote recovery and emotional wellbeing with or without a formal mental health diagnosis.
The focus is beginning to shift and new measures have just been announced by the government to target perpetrators of domestic abuse, giving this issue a higher policing priority. It’s a move in the right direction for high-risk perpetrators, but we need a broader prevention approach, given the 2.4 million people (almost all women) who are estimated to have suffered domestic abuse between 2021-22. The criminal justice system has an important role to play, though the NHS carries the highest financial burden in the overall 78-billion-pound cost of domestic abuse in England.
There is a paucity of youth services, and we need to invest in young people to bring about change. In reality, abuse cuts across every part of life; workplaces, schools, housing, health, finance, family, friends and communities- it’s the end of this list that holds the greatest opportunity for change and where the third sector needs to be focused. It’s where the sector came from, where it’s most valued, and where we make the biggest difference.
And the future is…
I deliver services in the Northeast where we have high levels of deprivation and child poverty. The charity I work for, Wearside Women in Need (WWIN), was established in 1983 and has grown from the provision of a safe house- with some women sleeping on sofa’s- to a full range of accommodation and community-based services. For us, the future looks greener, we want to be more ecological in our approach, whilst retaining our strong feminist roots.
The future is not moving women and children into refuges in the middle of the night and leaving perpetrators in the family home. This needs to change; and unless we support our young people to want something better – we could find ourselves delivering the same services in another fifty years.
Before closing, on International Women’s Day, I’d like to acknowledge the travesty of justice in Afghanistan and Iraq and the brave women who are fighting for what we accept as basic rights. I support their ongoing struggle in sisterhood.