October 30th, ten weeks after the death of its Chief Executive, Denise Marshall, Eaves closed down. In just a few weeks, the women’s sector has suffered a double loss, of Denise herself and then of Eaves, the organisation she shaped and led. 38 years of expertise in delivering services for women by women is simply gone.
I worked at Eaves from 2004 to 2009 before I became the Chief Executive of nia. Denise, like me, was a proudly working class feminist Chief Executive. Eaves, like nia, was a service provider with a political vision, supporting women to escape from and deal with the results of men’s violence whilst committed to policy and structural change for women. Eaves and nia were two of the few remaining women’s charities that were unashamedly feminist and unafraid to say it: feminist, secular and abolitionist. We recognise that men’s violence against women and girls is a cause and consequence of inequality between women and men and that religion, the law and the sexual exploitation and objectification of women reflect and reinforce sex inequality and contribute to a conducive context for men’s violence.
Feminist based services recognise that the ‘them and us’ between women who use the services and women who work and volunteer can be arbitrary and being a worker, volunteer or board member in a women’s organisation and victim-survivor of men’s violence are not mutually exclusive. Survivors of men’s violence against women and girls are present at all levels of nia, board members and staff, volunteers and senior management. Of course professional standards and boundaries have to be maintained but we’re in this together. This makes a difference, we don’t see victim-survivors as other. This means that we’re better able to avoid the language and assumptions that pathologise women’s understandable reactions to men’s violence. We don’t diminish the women we work with, we don’t infantilise, we don’t blame. It’s not ‘those women’ or ‘those communities’, it is ‘us’ and it is ‘we’.
Austerity measures have hit women and the women’s sector hard. The cuts are a tool of an ideological agenda with the gap between who ‘Politics’ are done by and for and who ‘Politics’ are done to, becoming wider; and where conservative with a lower case as well as an upper case C is disguised as progressive. Eaves and nia both lost services that had been grown and created by women survivors and activists through the creation of contracts and the spread of competitive tendering to larger organisations with multi-million pound turnovers who are not specialists in providing services to women survivors of male violence and are not interested in the bigger picture of challenging inequality between women and men.
The lack of recognition of the value of the specialist independent women’s sector reflects the lack of value of women. Victim Support, The Salvation Army and Hestia have been winning contracts for services for women (albeit increasingly with a gender neutral clause) through bidding low and offering commissioner rather than need and experience led responses and devoid of a feminist framework; all have male CEOs, only one has a female Chair of Trustees. Generic services led by men can do the job just as well, or so some commissioners and policy makers believe. Independent research tells a different story. This week, the same week that Eaves closed its doors, a study by the University of Suffolk showed that survivors of childhood sexual abuse felt most believed by Independent Sexual Violence Advocates and rated the services provided by independent specialist organisations – women run organisations – highest. Victim-survivors know when you’re in it for the contract, not for them.
Feminist informed practice looks beyond the obvious and at the bigger picture. Feminist informed practice considers unintended consequences, looking at how what we do in the here and now relates to the structural position of women. Those of us who provide feminist informed services ask ourselves whether our actions reinforce women’s assigned sex roles or challenge them? Whether what we do diminishes women and whether women who are disadvantaged by socio-economic, racial and other inequalities are excluded or further disadvantaged. A couple of weeks ago, a male CEO of a ‘domestic abuse charity’ proudly announced that the organisation where he worked considered the employment of men working in women’s services a good thing, because they act as positive role models. He went on the say that men don’t do any of the supporting roles in the organisation and that the two men that the organisation employs are himself, the CEO and a maintenance worker. The boss and the ‘handyman’ are men, those caring and supporting are women. Great. As a feminist, I don’t consider those role models; I call them sex role stereotypes.
At nia, resources are scarce, budgets barely balance, services are running at capacity, though often beyond and with waiting lists; staff are stretched and much of our funding for next year is unconfirmed.Last year, we provided face-to-face support to 1,060 women and girls and delivered 1,864 hours of counselling support, plus responded to 2,145 contacts to the East London Rape Crisis Information and Support Line and delivered training to 277 professionals. Eaves will not be the last women’s organisation to fall. I remember the scene in Planet of the Apes, the 1986 version, when Astronaut George Taylor sees the Statue of Liberty in the sand and realises he has gone in to the future. I don’t want future generations of women to have to rebuild the women’s sector, but I’d love it if they didn’t have to because because men’s violence against women, girls and children had ended.
The sadness and loss I feel at the demise of Eaves feels like a cruel aftershock of the believing disbelief I felt on 21st August, the day Denise died. We will miss our sisters at Eaves. The fight to end men’s violence against women and support women who have suffered men’s violence continues. It will continue as long as men’s violence against women and girls continues; in our work – paid and unpaid – and our activism, wherever we are, especially when women who have experienced men’s violence say that we’re the ones who best meet their needs.