Refuges: Women-only safe havens…or not?

Refuges are part of the everyday landscape of Wales, a part of the landscape that has saved the lives of numerous women and children. They are now also commonplace across many parts of the globe. No-one in their right mind would argue that they are not an essential part of women and children’s safety. They are recognised as such by the women that use them, as well as legislators and funders. Many women are only alive today because of women-only spaces.

The history

To understand how essential refuges are we need to go back to the 1970s when they grew out of the women’s movement. Women mobilised. Out of their activism and solid hard work they got us to where we are today. They were acts of immense courage at the time – by the women who set them up, and by the women who fled their homes and trusted in these new refuges. It was an entirely unpredicted and extraordinary development.

In my own city, a refuge was set up alongside the development of a Women’s Centre. All this was done without funds or any backing from the council or police, and often in the face of opposition from the community. Women themselves recognised what they needed to be able to escape violence, abuse and rape that was not, at the time, even recognised as a crime. And it was women-only space they identified as fitting their needs.

Eventually, bodies like Women’s Aid were set up to coordinate refuges and raise awareness of the issue of domestic abuse to the public, legislators, and the criminal justice system. Specialist groups for minority women, such as Southall Black Sisters and London Black Women’s Project also sprang up, recognising women in these communities needed different support and faced additional barriers to safety. It was women’s activism that led to the development of refuges and to social change, not government action or policies. Even though domestic abuse continues unabated across the world, the women’s movement have changed the way we looked at it and how we now offer support, awareness and policies around it.

Refuges have developed to become more than places of safety, but places where emotional and practical support is given to enable women and their children to build a life free from abuse. They are run and staffed by experienced, knowledgeable and passionate female workers and volunteers. I have worked in refuge and domestic abuse services for 25 years, and the range of support, the expertise of the staff and the understanding the staff have of the intricacies of abuse is astonishing. One of the key things that the domestic abuse sector understands is that a women-only safe space is paramount to a women’s recovery and wellbeing.

After decades of women fighting for the support that they so badly need, we are now at the astonishing and unbelievable point where traumatised women and children who have been abused by men, are being forced to share that safe space ….. with men.

The law in Wales

Wales has a legal framework that on paper supports women and girls in all aspects of violence and abuse. The Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse & Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015 was a ground-breaking piece of legislation that places women and girls at the centre of the conversation and places a number of duties on public bodies to enable the implementation of this legislation. The UK, however, is still not complying with an international agreement to prevent violence against women and girls, eight years after signing up to it. Known as the Istanbul Convention (The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence), this agreement has been signed by 45 countries, but 12 – including the UK – have yet to ratify it. It was designed to “step up protection from domestic violence” and to provide comprehensive standards for tackling it internationally. The UK signed the agreement in 2012, but it has yet to ratify it, as our laws need to meet the standards first. We should be looking at raising standards on combating domestic violence and abuse, not breaking down the protections already implemented.

We now have a response that includes strengthening and empowering women, survivor voices, holding perpetrators to account and prevention which includes raising awareness and engaging with the public.

Women-only spaces are necessary

Refuges are still a much-needed part of that response. That is what women and children are telling us. They are an invaluable resource because apart from all the practical support on offer, refuges avoid re-traumatisation, see safety as a priority, support women to develop boundaries, support women to speak out and support women to trust their own judgement. All things so often missing in an abusive relationship. We are now expecting women and children to put all that aside to placate a very small group of people hell bent on prioritising their own needs regardless of the consequences for thousands of women and children.

Let’s make this clear. I am not saying for one moment that any man who identifies as a woman needing support and safety because of domestic abuse should not be supported. What I am saying, is that a refuge developed for women and children is not the place for that support.

The Equality Act 2010 includes sex and gender reassignment as two of the nine protected characteristics. These are two very specific characteristics. What we are seeing now however, is the conflation of sex and gender and gender identity to the point where there is no distinction at all.

The Equality Act 2010 clearly states that “Female only spaces and services are lawful and that exclusion of transexuals does not equate to ‘gender re-assignment discrimination’, provided it is a proportionate means to achieve a legitimate aim.”

A landscape of fear

In Wales’ violence against women and girls’ sector, we are seeing an ever increasing landscape of fear where there is now a policy of accepting people who were born male but who later identify as women as being female. There is evidence that specialist VAWG groups in Wales are in a position where their funding is being slashed or withheld because they refuse to open up their services to men who identify as women.

The bullying and harassment from trans activists towards politicians, funders, sponsors and patrons, has frightened them into opening their doors to transgender women. – JULIE BINDEL

Transgender ideologies are behaving just like the misogynistic men’s rights movement.

The Equality Act 2010, Schedule 3, Part 27 states that “Circumstances where a person of one sex might reasonably object to the presence of a person of the opposite sex” is lawful. But somehow refuges are being bullied out of this lawful way of working.

I want to ask:

  • Why is such as small group (men who identify as women) being prioritised to the point where women must sacrifice their sex-based rights?
  • Why are women’s needs being discarded and considered less of a priority than those of men who identify as women?
  • Why are specialist VAWG groups being forced to submit to trans activist ideology that a woman is a feeling in someone’s head, rather than a biological reality?

If a man approaches the refuge, you are told to call 999. If a man follows a woman to the refuge, you are told to call 999. But if a man puts on a dress and has a ‘feeling’ he is a woman, then you welcome him into the refuge. Whether they are men who identify as women, or are men posing as trans for the purpose of exploiting women doesn’t matter. The effect on the women in the refuge is the same. Females are not props to validate the identities of males, whatever shape that identity takes.

Women are being bullied

We are bullied and made to feel guilty. We are told we have to let trans women into refuges as there is a high level of trans suicides and we don’t want to contribute to that. But where is the evidence for that? There is evidence however, that 10 women a week commit suicide, and 60,000 a year attempt it. There are more women every year attempting suicide than there are trans people in the population. Lesbians have a higher suicide rate than trans people. Southall Black Sisters found high rates of suicide amongst Asian women. Whereas I am in no way saying a suicide of a trans person is in any way less worthy than the suicide of a woman, what I am asking is why are trans people’s suicides and murders being prioritised whilst pandemic levels of male violence against women continue to be ignored? This speaks volumes about who has more power in society.

Women are being asked to deny their feelings and experiences to accept a reality they don’t agree with. Many women in refuges are diagnosed with anxiety, depression, PTSD and other mental health disorders because of the male violence and abuse they have experienced. Being forced to share a supposed safe space with biological males negatively impacts on healing and could be re-traumatising. Refuges are quite rightly worried about the consequences of what’s happening. You only have to look at the situation at the Vancouver Rape Relief Centre and RISE in Brighton to see the reality.

Would Rachel Dolezal, the white women who lived as a black women for years, be welcomed with open arms into the BLM Movement? Of course not. So why do we think it’s ok to insist that abused and traumatised women share their healing space with men who identify as women?

When men could legally beat their wives, women were classed as an adult human female. When women were denied an education, they were classed as adult human females. When women were legally raped in marriage they were classed as adult human females. This didn’t happen to them because they had a feeling that they were women. Gender might be a construct, but biological sex differences are not.

Under the Equality Act 2010, female-only refuges are lawful.