Defending women-only services

The women’s sector is absolutely vital and important because without it, there are so many women out there who will not be able to access services for their needs – it’s vital that the sector remains."

-Refuge Tower Hamlets interviewee


This briefing provides a quick guide to the evidence, arguments and policy levers you can use to defend and promote your women-only service. Changes to the funding environment for VAWG organisations, including transfer of the Community Safety Fund to Police and Crime Commissioners and uncertainty over national VAWG funding after 2015 – means that you need to be as prepared as possible, to ensure the continuation of your service.  The following are key messages that you can use in funding applications or bids for service delivery contracts, as well as some tools you can use to bolster your case in local lobbying and campaigning efforts.

You can download the full briefing Women-only services: making the case. A guide for women’s organisations in PDF here.

Key messages

Women-only services are:

  • Lawful;
  • Not discriminatory;
  • Much needed and wanted by women and girls;
  • Effective in terms of value for money and in terms of social impact; and
  • Recognised (including internationally) as a key mechanism to achieve women’s equality.

Unique elements of the women’s sector and women-only services


Women-only services create a ‘safe space’, both physically and emotionally.  As a result, women feel supported, develop confidence, achieve greater independence and higher self-esteem.  They are less marginalised and isolated and feel more able to express themselves. The support provided by women’s organisations is needs-led, has a high level of service user involvement, encourages peer support, focuses on empowerment and independence, provides a ‘one stop shop’ of services and supports the most marginalised and excluded women in our society.  The importance of women-only services is demonstrated by organisations providing VAWG services; these are often life-saving and have a long term impact on the women and families they support.

Going above and beyond in terms of care and professionalism

Women-only organisations and services show a high level of professional responsibility.  By this we mean that there is greater flexibility in terms of how women’s voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations support and respond to women’s needs. Staff often share experiences with service users which makes them more likely to go ‘above and beyond’ to help women who access their service (including going without pay). They are passionate and committed to providing high quality care to support women and girls recover from violence and abuse.

Economic and societal impacts

Women-only services deliver better outcomes for women, which then have even wider societal and economic impacts.  For example, increased confidence and holistic support enables women to better support their families.  Many go on to work or volunteer for the VCS as a result of developing more skills and improved confidence.  According to the Home Office the minimum cost to the State of VAWG is £37.6 billion per year.

The economic benefits of women-only services are likely to be significant, saving the state millions of pounds per year, for example, by improving women’s job opportunities or preventing re-victimisation (e.g. domestic violence), or health problems arising or worsening.  By supporting survivors of domestic abuse, the women’s sector can create savings to the State by preventing short and long term physical and mental health problems, such as substance misuse.

WRC’s SROI report, Ashiana, which provides refuge for South Asian, Turkish and Iranian women, found that 59% of women moved into employment, education and training whilst in the refuge.

If women-only services continue to be undermined, and in worst case scenarios are forced to close, there will be significant costs to local services through increased use of public services as a result of worsening social, economic, welfare, health, employment, criminal justice and education.  These problems could be avoided through sustainably funding women’s organisations and their women-only services.


Women from all walks of life prefer to use women-only services within a range of different contexts.  Women’s organisations play an important role in filling gaps in statutory provision and supporting hard to reach groups.  WRC research found evidence that many service users would not access support if it was not women-only.  Therefore, many women in need of vital support services would not receive them.  Possible consequences could include deterioration in health, missed employment and educational opportunities, ongoing violence etc.

A random poll, commissioned by WRC, of 1,000 women, found that:

  • 97% stated that a woman should have the choice of accessing a women-only support service if they had been the victim of a sexual assault.
  • 78% thought it was important to have the choice of a woman professional for counselling and personal support needs

Specialist services for minority groups of women

Some groups of women experience greater marginalisation and isolation, and have particular experiences as a result of intersectional discrimination.  That is, as well as being female, they also suffer additional discrimination on one or more fronts, for example: racism, homophobia, disablism, and poverty.

Women-only services develop to meet need, so those services which are led by and for specific communities of women (such as BAMER, lesbian, bisexual, older and younger women, lone mothers, mental health survivors etc.) are crucial.  These women-only services are often able to reach women who would not otherwise engage with services, either in public or third sectors (including general women’s organisations).

As with women-only services generally, women from minority groups want to access services run by women from their own, or similar, backgrounds as they will have a better understanding of their experiences and issues, and greater empathy than people who do not share their backgrounds.  Such specialist services offer therapeutic support, counselling, peer groups and many services in languages other than English, given within a sensitive framework and a safe environment.

Organisations led by, and for, minority women are also necessary in addressing social exclusion.  They enable integration through empowering and building the confidence of their service users, and by helping women who are often on the margins of communities to access opportunities that many other people take for granted.

Take action: Collaboration and partnership working

Working in partnership with other women’s organisations, either through a forum, network or more formal partnership arrangement where you are delivering services together, is an effective way of pooling resources, sharing good practice, winning funding and having a stronger voice at local level. For more information refer to the link below:

Competition or collaboration? Working together as the women’s sector'

Take action: Using the media

These resources will be useful if you are interested in using the media to lobby, campaign and raise awareness. Click on the title to download the document.

Why should you engage with the media?

How do you get the media's attention?

Running an effective press office

Example of a media inquiry sheet

Producing a professional press release

Public speaking

Take action: Evidence

Women’s organisations should ensure they are collecting and using robust evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of their services.  This can include ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ data, such as case studies that demonstrate a particular aspect of your work.  For example, if you wanted to make the case that generic service providers often lack the expertise to effectively support survivors of sexual violence, and could even further compound and exacerbate the impacts of the violence suffered, you could use a case study you have collected to demonstrate this, such as the following:

“[A woman who had been raped] had gone to one of the larger mainstream organisations and she said she got to speak to a male volunteer there.  He gave her half an hour of his time and told her she had to ‘get on with her life’, that was probably ‘the best thing for her’.  This was quite appalling. […] These mainstream organisations are often quite well funded and well respected but on the ground the experience is somewhat different, depending obviously on which branch you go to.”

For more information about how to make the most of your monitoring and evaluation please click here.

Take action: Being proactive

With so many changes happening at a local level (e.g. the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners who will be commissioning VAWG services and the subsequent changes to VAWG funding streams), women’s organisations need to be organised and proactive in offering practical support and solutions.  For example, organisations could meet and strategise about their key messages and plan of action to determine the commissioning framework and equality focus of the Police and Crime Commissioners work.  At the very least, women’s organisations should contact the Safer Future Communities network co-ordinating organization at to see how they can influence their local lobbying and campaigning plans.  For more information please access our briefing by following the download below:

Lobbying and Influencing

Take action: Levers

Public Sector Equality Duty and women-only services: Potentially, the most important part of the Equality Act (2010) for women’s organisations is the new Public Sector Equality Duty, which makes it lawful to take positive action measures that involve different treatment of different equality groups which would otherwise be unlawful (s.158 of the Equality Act 2010).  This could include women-only services.While only voluntary, this step can be taken to: alleviate disadvantage experienced by people who share a protected characteristic; reduce their under-representation in relation to particular activities; and meet their particular needs.

The Equality Act 2010 also makes it clear that women-only (and girl-only) services are legal and appropriate in certain contexts; it is still legal and appropriate for public authorities to fund (and provide) women-only services.  This means that if a voluntary and community organisation normally provides services for one equality group only, it is lawful to continue to do so.  Nothing has changed in this regard under the Equality Act.  The Equality Act should not be interpreted to mean that both sexes should be treated the same.  Single-sex services are permitted where it can be shown to be the most effective way of providing those services or where the service is needed by one sex only (Equality Act 2010, Schedule 3, Part 7).

An organisation may restrict their membership to one equality group only but not by colour.  An organisation could be only for retired women or only for retired Afro-Caribbean women, but it could not be an association for retired Black women as this would be based on colour (Equality Act 2010, Schedule 16, Paragraph 1:3).

Using public law to challenge decisions: Public law is mostly about the way decisions are made rather than the merits (outcome) of the decision itself.  Public law is the set of legal rules which ensure that bodies carrying out public functions follow such processes.  For more information about how public law may be useful refer to the link below:

'Keeping it legal'

The Compact: The Compact sets out guidelines for how both parties should work together to ensure that better outcomes are delivered.  The Compact is not legally bindingon either the public or the third sectors.  However, according to the Compact Advocacy Team there is a “…legitimate expectation that its signatories (both at the national and local levels) will abide by their commitments”.

CEDAW: The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women places obligations on countries that have agreed to the Convention to eliminate discrimination against women.  As a signatory, the UK government (which includes all public bodies) must fully implement it to ensure the practical realisation of equality between women and men in this country.  The Convention is binding, meaning it has legal standing under international law, but it does not supersede domestic UK law.  In 2008, the Committee urged the State party to provide increased and sustained funding to NGOs and other civil society groups involved in the area of women’s rights. This is useful information to cite to public bodies. Click here for more information about how CEDAW can be useful (see esp. the 'Toolkit' tab).

Demonstrating social and economic impact of your women-only service: With the current economic crisis putting increased pressures on public finances, and with funders looking for greater evidence of ‘value for money’, it is essential that women’s organisations are able to demonstrate and communicate the economic, social and environmental value that they generate.

WRC’s SROI analysis for 5 women’s organisations found that:

  • For every £1 of investment in services, the social value created by women’s organisations ranges between £5 and £11.
  • The total social value created by women’s organisations and specific services within organisations ranges between £1,773,429 and £5,294,226

Findings from the SROI demonstrate a range of positive outcomes from the five women’s organisations involved, and illustrate that investment in women’s organisations provides extraordinary benefits to women, families and wider society, as well as saving money for the State.  Some issues to be considered when thinking in terms of the impact of your own services are: increased independence, self confidence and self esteem which then supports women in to education and training; improved physical and mental health, which reduces long term health spend on state services; increased economic independence, which reduces state benefit spend; reduction in suicide and self harm for women.

There are a range of tools available that organisations can use to demonstrate their impact.  For more information click here:

Social Value Briefings (see Briefing 2).

The values and benefits of 'by women, for women' services

Publication date: October 2007

Why women-only? The values and benefits of 'by women, for women' serviceswhywomen

This report aims to answer the question asked increasingly of many women’s organisations by funders and the public: "Why are you women-only?" This timely report sets out why women-only services are still relevant and much in demand. The research also explores the far-reaching benefits of women-only services, the need for minority women to run their own specific services, the misunderstandings and undervaluation of women-only service provision, and the risks to the future survival of such services.




Publication date: June 2016

This briefing is designed to highlight the existence of legal protections for women-only activities, spaces and services to help ensure that these rights are properly understood and to avoid misinterpretation that may threaten their existence. The following topics are dealt with below:

  • Summary of what is and isn’t covered by the Equality Act 2010
  • When discrimination is lawful
  • Women-only associations
  • When discrimination against women-only events is unlawful
  • The legal responsibilities of public bodies