Who will protect black women's interests when their organisations are gone?

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Vivienne Hayes MBE is CEO of the Women's Resource Centre, the umbrella organisation for the UK women's sector. Here she reflects on the greater than ever need for organisations run by and for black women which, however, are disappearing fast.

In light of recent political developments in Europe and the US it is evident that the stubborn divides across sex and race in our societies remain as impenetrable as ever. At the intersection of both levels of oppression, and often invisible and unheard, are black women. The mainstream image of a woman is a white woman; the go-to picture of a black person is that of a black man. As the CEO of an umbrella women’s organisation I firmly accept that it lies within our sector’s realm of responsibility to continually raise this issue and seek remedies to correct the bias.

It is notable thatthe challenges of this ‘intersectionality’ for black women are predominantly addressed through the prism of black women’s organisations in the UK. Yet thesevery organisations are for the most part either closing or at risk of closure. To understand this in more detail see black feminist organisation Imkaan’s report on the demise of the black and minority ethnic (BME) violence against women and girls (VAWG) sector,Capital Losses.

The risks to BME women’s organisations are formidable, and aren’t solely defined by the obvious routes into understanding this, such as austerity measures that push equality into a ’nice to have’ category, or indeed the sharp increase in racist rhetoric under the guise of Brexit. Although there has always been a struggle to secure black women’s organisations' existence, it seems things are only getting harder. The competitive climate in which voluntary and community sector organisations exist is particularly damaging to what the WRC defines as the ‘smaller specialist’ parts of the sector. Funding commissioners’ desires to have fewer and larger contracts puts these organisations at an immediate disadvantage and often excludes them from bidding.

Larger organisations are encouraged to bid for all-encompassing contracts, which conflates women’s needs and promotes a one size fits all approach, despite decades of evidence that the opposite is needed. Just as we see a continual backlash against sex-specific provision, we also see a backlash against race-specific provision.

Let’s be clear: women need these specialist services. In a society that rests upon institutional discrimination based on sex and race, many BME women do not access services unless the provision is specific to their needs, be they cultural or language-related. Without the BME specialist women’s sector, already marginalised women not only receive little or no service, but their specific issues become smothered and even more invisible.

WRC does not accept that mainstream - or white - women’s organisation can replace specialist BME women’s organisations when providing services for BME women. It’s interesting that some women who want to protect women-only provision led by women seem unable to transfer that analysis to race.

Similarly we see race specialist organisations failing to understand the intersection of sex and women’s inequality.

This gap is only ever filled by black women’s organisations, because it’s at the core of their work, at the heart of their passion and is their whole reason for existing.

We should remember that it is black women’s organisations which advocate strategically for black women’s rights. For example without the work of BME women’s organisation Southall Black Sisters we would not have seen policy changes made to protect women with ‘no recourse to public funds’ (new immigrants to the UK relying on spousal visas) experiencing male violence. We would also be failing in making the case for provision for black women that doesn’t only focus on female genital mutilation (FGM) or forced marriage.

And without the activism of black women more generally, the American Civil Rights Movement would not have been the powerhouse it was, and neither would we have the Black Lives Matter campaign today.

An ideological environment that promotes the needs of the individual above the needs of groups experiencing structural inequality also serves to hammer another nail in the coffin of specialist black women’s organisations.

It seems the government is keen to ensure any strategic evidence-based policy-making is avoided, and we hear insteadabout decision-makers wanting to meet ‘real women’, and the mention of individuals and what they had to say about an important argument. In this drive the Women’s National Commission (WNC) was also closed in 2010. Although imperfect, it was the single opportunity women had to feed strategic issues into government departments. What we have in its place are some ad-hoc meetings with Ministers for Women & Equalities, presenting no opportunity for a strategic conversation. By focusing on specific manifestations of discrimination and avoiding a root approach, we find ourselves now in a position of going backwards. Women are paying for more than 80% of the austerity bill.

While many decision-makers, both within government and in the independent trusts and foundations, recognise the value and effectiveness of small specialist organisations, the action needed to support them has been insufficient to halt their demise. Hardly surprising when those with the loudest voices and lobbying power are those with the most capacity and resources. And we don’t need to ask what the race and sex is of most of those in positions of power.

Some of us in the wider women’s sector are supporting our sisters from the specialist black women’s sector and, frankly, some of us are not.

Likewise some from the race sector are concerned about black women’s organisations and some are not.

Perhaps it is time we stepped up to the plate and paid some attention before it’s too late? Because, let’s not forget, women’s lives are at stake here.

How can you help?

· Write to your MP and ask them what they are doing to support black women’s organisations.

· Find out which BME women’s orgs are in your locality and do some fundraising for them.

· Become a supporter of a black women’s organisation.

· Talk with your friends, family, neighbours and work colleagues about the need for black women’s organisations.

· Follow some black women’s organisations on social media. (Try @Imkaan and @SBSisters to begin with)

· Do some reading to further educate yourself on black feminism. (My personal recommendations would be Patricia Hill Collins, Audre Lorde and Angela Davis; you can find a decent starter list here on Buzzfeed.)

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