Women’s Centre

Argus title : Don’t allow this beacon of hope to close down

I see my mother most days and if I don’t see her I usually phone. Her memory is now very impaired, but every time I see her she asks “Have you written something for the newspaper? Have I seen it?”

This week I’ve replied “I’m writing about the Women’s Centre Ma. It’s lost all its grant money and it’s losing its premises in March. It may have to close”. Her short term memory is so poor, that I’ve had to repeat it several times.

What amazes me is the outrage she expresses each time she hears it. I didn’t expect her to recall the Women’s Centre. After all, she has only a partial memory of the 30 years she’s spent in England. But, amazingly, she does remember.

“That’s terrible!” she says, “I don’t understand how they can let that happen?”. “I don’t know, Ma” I reply “The voluntary organisations are having a bad time. And I don’t think women’s issues are taken so seriously now as they were then”. “Well that’s awful” she says “I don’t understand it”.

I don’t know if she can remember visiting the Women’s Centre when it was based at the old Resource Centre and at Marlborough Place, or if she can recall Sybil Gabriel, the feminist friend who introduced her. I know that in the early 1980s they visited the U.S. airbase at Greenham Common together, on a trip organised by the Women’s Centre and that my mother pinned her first granddaughter’s bootee to the wire.

My mother had never been on a demonstration before, so it was an extraordinary thing for her to do. But then that is what is wonderful about the Women’s Centre – it empowers women to do what may once have seemed impossible.

Sybil was an Australian who, like my mother, had immigrated to this country late in life. She had been through a painful divorce and was alone. Though artistically talented, she had little self confidence and no qualifications.

The Women’s Centre became a life line for Sybil. Volunteers there encouraged her to attend classes at the Friends Centre and to pursue her interest in painting. Subsequently, she completed a two year diploma course at the then Brighton Polytechnic Art College, the oldest mature student ever to do so.

Sybil died a few years ago, in her late seventies, after a long battle with cancer. She’d lived at least a decade longer than expected and left many fine paintings. It was a triumph of indomitable spirit, but also a tribute to the support she’d had over the years.

Brighton & Hove is full of women like Sybil and my mother, whose lives were touched and changed by the Women’s Centre. Earlier this week, this newspaper printed accounts of how it has affected the lives of some of its current users. However, what is often not realised is the profound effect it has had on the development of the city.

The historical and cultural legacy of the Centre to the city is hard to calculate. In the 1970s and 1980s it played its full part in the monumental national struggles for women’s liberation which changed policy at both a national and local level. It was a centre of change.

Though nowadays people tend to take women’s basic rights for granted, at that time contraception, abortion, equal access to divorce, the right to work, housing and refuge from domestic violence were all rights for which women had to argue.

In Brighton & Hove it was the Centre to which women turned when they needed help or when rights were under attack, when their G.P. denied them reproductive advice or their husbands beat them. It was here that local women began to talk for the first time about experiences of rape or sexual abuse in childhood.

Women gathered here to campaign for abortion rights and against rape, organised “Reclaim the Night” marches and ran self defence courses for women who had grown weary of sexual harassment. They challenged gender stereotypes in the face of ridicule and hostility. And from this powerhouse, they developed services.

In truth there can be very few services for women in Brighton & Hove which do not, in some way, owe their existence to the Women’s Centre.

Brighton Women’s Centre was involved in setting up one of the first three refuges in the country. It nurtured and helped develop “Threshold”, the women’s mental health service (now also struggling for survival); ”OASIS”, a service for women addicts; and the “Women’s Refuge Project”, for women and children experiencing domestic violence. The Centre’s highly successful “Toybox” crèche was used as a model by many organisations.

Significantly, all the new organisations went on to establish more secure funding streams than the Women’s Centre. In a sense the Women’s Centre acted as ‘mother’ to the new organisations, nurturing them and setting them free.

It could be said that the Centre has become tired and lacking in radical ‘edge’. Certainly it now works within the constraints of charity law. The truth is that the political climate in which the Centre operates is one of backlash against women’s rights and the women’s movement, in which many other women’s centres and almost all rape crisis centres have folded.

The Centre has many strengths, but these bear within them the seeds of its difficulties.

• It offers an extraordinary range of information and advice to women, but the very breadth of the service provided makes it difficult to attract funding bodies which prefer specialist services.

• The new specialist organisations which the Centre develops soak up the small amount of funding that is available for ‘women’s issues’

• It relies upon, supports and trains volunteers, but this impairs its capacity to fundraise consistently, not least because well-trained and newly empowered volunteers regularly leave to enter paid employment

• It is innovative, but is committed to provide core services for endemic social problems – such as rape and domestic violence – for which there are no quick fixes.

Funding streams grow increasingly restrictive. Of recent years, government funding has been available for regeneration purposes. However, a very limited amount of this money has been available to voluntary organisations and only a tiny proportion has been spent on ‘women’s services’.

The Government’s focus has not been upon core funding, but on ‘innovation’, new projects and ‘capacity building’ (giving people and communities the means and skills to develop).

As a result, some cash-starved voluntary organisations have repackaged old services to look ‘new’ and ‘innovative’. Some with little track record of capacity building have rapidly discovered a commitment to this way of working.

Ironically, the one local organisation which, for the past 30 years, has been a consistent ‘capacity builder’ has rarely benefited from appropriate funding. And although its work has encouraged innovation, it has been other projects which have benefited.

The Centre has no core funding. It used once to receive £8,000 a year in grant from the local Council. It was a derisory amount, but did at least pay the rent. Now it receives nothing.

Baroness Joyce Gould, who is Patron of the Women’s Centre, expressed grave concern at the situation: “It would be a terrible loss to the city if it closed. It is unique in providing such breadth of services to women and their children. Nowhere else can offer such a range of information and advice on issues as diverse as pregnancy and childcare through to benefits problems and homelessness, domestic violence, and sexual assault. And nowhere offers training to women in quite the same way.”

By any objective standard it is extraordinary that a organisation of this historical and practical importance should have been left for so many years lurching from crisis to crisis, never fully secure in its accommodation.

It is even more astonishing that a city which prides itself on its commitment to equality and diversity, should fail to secure a centre which advocates for the most disadvantaged, abused and impoverished group in our society.

I can only paraphrase my mother “I don’t understand how we can they let this happen.”

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