Letter – Copy of email (slightly edited) sent to Rape Crisis Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid, and their respective networks of providers, on 10/08/2021

10/08/2021

Hi, I am writing to you all again today in light of recent developments.

Firstly, we would like to thank those of you who have responded to us thus far, we very much appreciate your time, the information you provided, and your comments. We would like to point out that while we have been trying to obtain clarity in this area on behalf of survivors for three years now,  we have previously had a wholly positive experience in contacting individual centres on behalf of women on waiting lists in need of female-only support, and it is due to this that we – perhaps naively – thought our questions would be straightforward for providers to answer, and that we would overwhelmingly be told that you offer your services on a female-only basis for those who need them. We thought this process would mean we could let survivors know that publicly/officially, each RCS and SWA provider has made it clear they will offer female-only provision (and then we could eventually produce some sort of resource for survivors who need to access services in this way). This is important, because survivors are self-excluding from your services even in some cases where we have advocated for them – they want and need providers to publicly/officially be clear that they offer their services on a female-only basis, or else they don’t feel they can safely access them. We also wish to note that since the overall purpose of contacting you was to offer clarification to women who may need to use your services, as well as women who may already be on your waiting lists, this of course means clarifying the matter with women publicly.

However, it has been raised with us that many of you may find it unhelpful that we update on Twitter as and when we receive responses. The reason we decided to do this is we cannot justify holding on to information that women need, just because other providers have not yet responded and this means we are not yet in the position to be able to draw up our resource. Most of what we do is offline, we have tweeted around 20 times in the last year, but it is our best tool to reach women. Although with that said, we did not factor in that this may cause unwelcome attention for specific centres and staff. And while we have to be clear with you that we cannot be responsible for people’s reactions, including the volume of those reactions, to information we share regarding how individual services operate, and that our priority is and will always be survivors who feel unable to access the support they need, we also wish to work as constructively as possible, and not make anyone’s life any harder if we can help it. As such, we have decided to revise our approach, but before outlining that approach, we need to clarify a few things:

When RCS and SWA refer to ‘women-only’ services, this includes transwomen – both organisations have been very clear on this – therefore this does not mean ‘female-only’. So when survivors and survivor-led organisations such as ours contact organisations and services for women who have suffered sexual violence, and ask if female-only support can be offered, to respond by saying you offer women-only support is not only a refusal to answer our question, but it functions as abuse in our opinion, because it is an attempt to manipulate and obscure in regard to an expressed *trauma-based need* of a vulnerable woman/on behalf of vulnerable women, and in such a way that could also lead to devastating consequences and trauma. We are using strong language here because we have to be clear, accurate and unequivocal – it is absolutely unacceptable to do this, it causes a great deal of harm, and it has to stop. One of the issues survivors have raised with not just us, but with your national level organisations directly, is that they are afraid of being gaslit in this kind of way when asking for female-only support, or deliberately misled in a way that results in being retraumatised. Thus responses like this create barriers for women, and that is at the very least.

We agree that women’s services are life-saving, this is why it is so important that women who self-exclude from your services should be acknowledged, and their needs should be met, and it is also why we have done all we reasonably can to encourage and facilitate women to access your services. But as we highlighted with you previously, the failure of your organisations at national and local level to publicly/officially clarify whether you will offer your support on a female-only basis, has *already come at a human cost* – women in need have not accessed your services as a result of this. And you don’t have to take our word for it, they have told you directly, including in a face to face meeting with Rape Crisis Scotland. And journalists have also covered the issue, with one detailing how she spoke to the mother of a girl who had been raped by a group of boys, who did not access support because her local RCS service would not commit to providing its services to her on a female-only basis. This is a girl effectively denied potentially life-saving support – and we say she matters – and it is survivors such as this girl that we will always put first: her story makes clear the human cost of the failure to offer – and the failure to publicly/officially confirm where you offer – female-only services where needed. However long your waiting lists are, this does not justify failing women and girls in this way.

And we want to be categorically clear that survivors and survivor-led organisations trying to clarify whether or not you will meet their needs, are not to blame for your failure to clarify whether or not you will, or the impact this failure has on those who need your services, or the impact this has on your services and staff – any idea to the contrary is abject victim-blaming. The anger directed towards survivors has been astonishing and profoundly concerning; after a weekend where the CEO of Edinburgh Rape Crisis stated in a podcast that women who wish to access their services on a female-only basis are ‘bigots’ who will be challenged and expected to ‘reframe’ their trauma, and that the support ERC offers is ‘political’, RCS at national level directed their ire at a survivor-led group (us) for acknowledging the human cost of these kinds of comments and of the failure to clarify the single-sex basis on which support will be offered. Every single person reading this email will understand the human cost outlined here, and that the only people with the power to address it, is yourselves. We will not accept any sort of blame-shifting onto survivors asking questions in relation to trauma-based needs, and indeed we will robustly challenge it.

With that said, we understand this is a very difficult climate for providers too, and that those individuals and organisations who don’t want women to have access to the support they need, may engage in forms of retaliation against providers, and we admit we underestimated how heavily this may be playing on minds and impacting decisions by women’s services and national level organisations. And while this does not justify failing survivors, we believe this demonstrates the need for RCS and SWA at national level to support their respective networks, and work together on organisation-wide responses.

Which brings us to our revised approach: Our organisation will always prioritise survivors, and as we have outlined here, there is a grave human cost to survivors where providers refuse to offer female-only support, or to commit to offering female-only support publicly/officially – this is evidenced and indisputable. As such, we will continue to pursue our plans to publish a resource for women in need of female-only support in Scotland. However, we will now commit to *not* publishing responses on Twitter as and when we receive them, and believe we can justify offering a two-month window, at which point we will publish the outcome of this work in the aforementioned resource. Although if during this time RCS and SWA produces your own resources answering this question, this will remove the need for our organisation to do so – though I must add that any such resource should be survivor-focused and ensure not to victim-blame survivors for their needs or for asking questions. I am also happy to discuss this matter with any of you who would find this useful [redacted]. Though I must be clear, I of course cannot commit to confidentiality, because as already stated, our commitment is to survivors, and if information is shared with us that women we represent and act in the interests of should know, it is unfair to burden us with keeping this information from them.

We have done our best to walk the line here of establishing clear needs and boundaries for survivors, while looking at where we can be helpful and make things as easy as possible for providers and national level organisations. We are hoping for good faith action, prioritising survivors, and look forward to hearing from you in due course. We very much hope your national level organisations choose to take this burden away from frontline services and produce organisational responses, and we stand in hope and solidarity with everyone doing their best to help women and girls who have been victims of sexual violence.

Best wishes

Leya

Director, Women and Girls in Scotland