In our International Women’s Day blog, our Public Affairs and National Programmes Officer, Rachel Cain argues that International Women’s Day is the time to recognise the small and specialist services that support women and help the most vulnerable as build a world where women are not left behind.
The theme of International Women’s Day this year is #BalanceforBetter, recognising that we all benefit from a world, community, economy in which there is gender balance, where women are not left behind. From the boardroom to parliament, some progress has been made in recent years, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
This year’s International Women’s Day annual study showed that, across the world, sexual harassment, sexual violence and domestic abuse are still seen as being amongst the most important issues facing women today. In the UK, one in four women have experienced domestic abuse at some point in their lifetime, and one in five women have experienced some type of sexual assault. How can we address these issues, as part of the wider vision to better balance opportunities across society? Yes, we need to challenge perpetrators and the systems that perpetuate violence and abuse. But we must also make sure women can access the support they need to rebuild their lives.
The expertise of specialist charities also enables them to reach those who might face additional barriers in accessing support – such as women with insecure immigration status, disabilities or other complex needs.
For many, this support is found in small and specialist services. They provide vital, person-centred support in trusting environments for women who have been affected by violence or abuse. Their gender informed approach works for victims and survivors – as evidenced in monitoring reports from the many charities we fund. It also makes sense for the economy too – research by Women’s Resource Centre has shown how women’s specialist services generate significant levels of savings for the state and high levels of social value. Like the charities in our Value of Small research, these charities create spaces where people feel safe and respected, sticking with women for the long term and helping them to navigate other services.
The expertise of specialist charities also enables them to reach those who might face additional barriers in accessing support – such as women with insecure immigration status, disabilities or other complex needs – taking an intersectional approach and working together to overcome the challenges they face.
Women’s lives are complex, so the response they need from specialist organisations is also complex.
But these charities are also at risk. Almost half of the local charities and community groups surveyed by Local Giving said they’d had to dip into their reserves in the last 12 months, at a time when 72% reported an increase in demand for their services. Funding insecurity is the biggest challenge faced by refuges and Imkaan has shown that dedicated ‘by and for’ BME women’s organisations are particularly at risk of losing funding. Smaller, specialist organisations are particularly vulnerable to losing out in the commissioning process due to the shift towards favouring larger, generic providers. That’s why we supported Home Office’s Violence Against Women and Girls Toolkit, showing how commissioning can better work for specialist services, and why we’ve also funded Imkaan, Women’s Aid Federation of England and Welsh Women’s Aid for three years, to support the sustainability of specialist services.
It’s critical that these specialist services can both survive and thrive. Domestic abuse alone costs the economy £66bn per year – and so not investing in these services is a false economy. If women don’t get the support they need, the costs to communities, society and the public purse – and most importantly, to the women themselves – are much greater in the long run.
Women’s lives are complex, so the response they need from specialist organisations is also complex. The importance of this was shown in the Breaking Down the Barriers report recently released by AVA and Agenda, funded through our Transform programme. The report highlights the experiences of the most disadvantaged women who have experienced violence and abuse, who are often also facing wider issues, such as mental health problems, homelessness or contact with the criminal justice system. It highlights the effects of cuts to public services, but most importantly, the report sets out clear, practical recommendations for a more joined up way of working, to ensure that women get the holistic, specialist support they need, at an earlier point. It recognises that, while these issues are complex to resolve, change is possible and we can all play a role in making it happen.
While there are many challenges to be overcome before we can reach a #BalanceforBetter, International Women’s Day provides an opportunity to recognise small and specialist charities who are providing vital support, getting on with the job of working towards this every day.