Karen Ingala Smith talks about single-sex services

“I have heard leaders of charities that are supposed to support women who’ve been subjected to men’s violence say that it is ‘not safe’ for them to speak about this. That makes me so angry. How can they talk about their safety and accept those salaries when we are literally dealing with women and children who are genuinely unsafe because of men?”

Karen Ingala Smith, photographed by Sophia Evans for the Observer

Sex Matters spoke to Karen Ingala Smith, CEO of Nia – a charity that offers services to women, girls and children who have been subjected to sexual and domestic violence and abuse – about how the charity maintains single-sex provision.

Karen, you’re one of the few voluntary sector leaders who have stood up for women’s single-sex services. Why are single-sex services so important for women who have survived domestic and sexual violence

Being abused by a man, whether a partner, relative, associate or stranger, can have a profound impact on a woman’s well-being. Lots of women need space away from men to process what has been done to them and to begin to rebuild their lives. 

Some women, not all, experience trauma after abuse. Trauma isn’t so much about what is done to you, it’s how your body and mind react to what has been done to you. It’s not a conscious thing, it’s not a choice, it’s not something that women can give themselves a good talking to about and move on.

To address trauma, women need to be in a space that doesn’t trigger a trauma response. And for some women, this means a space away from men.

I think that we should be providing services that support all women’s needs, not just those that are less complicated. Including males in services for those who have been subjected to sexual and domestic violence and abuse can mean excluding the most vulnerable women who need support. I know not all women survivors need this, but I don’t think those who do not need it, should be denying the space of women who do. 

And then there’s safety. Most sexual and physical violence is committed by men. If you want to provide a safe space for women, the statistically most effective thing that you can do to keep that space safe is to exclude men from it, irrespective of how those men identify. In fact, research shows that at best, violent criminality of males with a transgender identity follows the pattern of general male offending. If people say the answer is risk assessment, they’re missing the point. The point of risk assessment is to identify and remove any risks which are not necessary, not to throw extra ones in and hope for the best. 

Some women have never been given the space to think about what they want and how they want to live their life. Female socialisation is powerful and men are very good at turning things around and making it all about them – and requiring the care and support of women.  Some of the women that we work with have literally never had this experience – a male free experience – and being away from the male gaze, away from men projecting their expectations, can be transformative. 

How did Nia develop its policy? 

Back in 2017, the board was just about to ratify the five-year strategic plan and I said that I thought there was something missing. We’d identified the threat to single-sex services for some time and were alarmed to see that things were getting worse. I suggested we should think about articulating protection of women-only policies in our strategic priorities. 

The board and senior management team of Nia knew this was a risk to the charity’s survival and that it might bring negative attention, but we agreed that inaction meant we would be complicit in the erasure of single-sex services, so we decided that we’d face the risk.

In short, if this was going to bring about the end of Nia, it was the hill we were prepared to die on and we’d do so proudly knowing that we were doing what we were supposed to do, protecting women, girls and children who have been subjected to men’s violence.

Nia is a service provider, not a lobbying organisation, but we have tried to stay true to our political objectives. It did feel like an important step at the time and I was proud that the trustees and senior management team had come to the decision they did.  

The next thing was the policy. We knew that the Equality Act exceptions allowed for the lawful provision of single-sex services. There was, and still is, a lot of misinformation about the exceptions and we believe this was a deliberate tactic in some cases. A lot of organisations were producing trans inclusion policies – so I turned that around and produced a Prioritising Women Policy which both outlined the legal position and some of the research that backed up the importance of single-sex services. And then I got it checked for legality – again, I knew that negative attention was likely to follow and I didn’t want us to have got it wrong. As with all our policies, it then went to the board of trustees for consultation and ratification, they made some changes, and then we rolled it out to the organisation.

Why has it become so difficult for women’s organisations to say they are female-only?

The short answer is that most of us are dependent on government bodies for funding and the trans lobby has been very successful in promoting their interpretation of the law and of what is right – and branding everyone with a different perspective as bigoted. When you’re bidding for a contract, it’s the contract funder, not the service provider, who sets the conditions. 

It’s not an easy thing to do, to make a decision which might cause funding problems – which might ultimately close you down and stop you supporting women. Some think they’re making a pragmatic decision and that in doing so they’ll be able to continue to provide the support. We could see the argument for that, but long term, that was not going to service the interests of women who were being or had been subjected to men’s violence. 

In fact, even at Nia, some of our contracts (for community-based work) require us to provide services for men. Where that’s the case, we do that and it doesn’t therefore make a difference if those males have transgender identities. But we do not allow men to live in our refuges, come to services in our women’s centre, or get involved in our group work. If we work with a male, it’s never in the same place as we work with women. 

Some women’s organisations have lost the connection with their feminist roots, others have fallen for identity politics and been duped into thinking that they’re the ones who are doing the right thing.

You can’t identify out of sex-based oppression or the threat of men’s violence against women. 

Clearly second-tier organisations haven’t helped either. When I gave evidence about providing single-sex services at the Women and Equalities Select Committee, Sarah Champion MP challenged the representative from Women’s Aid about why the organisation had failed to give guidance on the Equality Act and the exceptions – when the Act had been in force for 10 years. It was awkward, but she was absolutely right.  

As a frontline service provider what support would you want from regulators like the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Charity Commission, and second-tier and umbrella organisations in the voluntary sector?

I’d like them to focus on funders so that awareness of the importance of single-sex services and their protection is built into funding frameworks. Even if all those bodies said the right thing, if funders continue to be stuck under the influence of the men’s rights lobby, a lot of frontline service providers will still feel stuck. There should be penalties for not properly meeting women’s needs through the provision of single-sex services. A proper Equalities Impact Assessment would show that single-sex services are the most effective way to meet women’s needs. 

What advice would you give to other voluntary sector leaders who are grappling with this issue? 

Not advice, but I’d want to ask them if they really think they’re doing the right thing for women, girls and children if they stay quiet and allow the services that our fore-sisters built to be destroyed. It took an incredible upsurge of women’s activism to create the specialist services that exist today. Feminist activists and survivors (many women are both) built the specialist women’s sector. We should be protecting that legacy, not playing safe because we’ve become an arm of the patriarchal state.

They should be prioritising women and girls. If they’re not prepared to do that, then really I think they’re in the wrong job.

I have heard leaders of charities that are supposed to support women who’ve been subjected to men’s violence say that it is “not safe” for them to speak about this. That makes me so angry. How can they talk about their safety and accept those salaries when we are literally dealing with women and children who are genuinely unsafe because of men?

Karen Ingala Smith has been Chief Executive of Nia since 2009. With over 29 years’ experience in the women’s sector which encompasses frontline delivery, and operational and strategic management, she’s a leader in feminist-informed service provision. She is also the founder of the campaign Counting Dead Women.

Sex Matters drew inspiration from Nia’s policy to develop a model policy on single sex services.

“Most of us in the group have had issues with men and it makes you feel like you’re not alone.
It’s a beautiful, very safe environment where you can be yourself.”

Anonymous Nia client

“It’s women only and that’s important cos they [the staff] understand and it’s safe to be here.”

Anonymous Nia client

Header photo by Sophia Evans for the Observer