Edging back to normality? The report of the Scottish Government’s Independent Strategic Review of Funding and Commissioning of Violence Against Women and Girls Services

In 2021, the Scottish Government established an independent review to look at the funding and commissioning of services dealing with violence against women and girls (VAWG). Its report was published this week and is available here. More about the work of the review is available here.

The review’s remit was ‘to develop a more consistent, coherent, collective and stable funding model that will ensure high quality, accessible specialist services across Scotland for women, children and
young people experiencing any form of VAWG.’ The report looks broadly at the structure and nature of service provision. It discusses groups who have been under-provided for, with considerable attention paid to women from ethnic minorities, those with disabilities, women living in rural areas, and young women in particular.

This blog argues this report breaks new ground, in the discussion of sex and gender identity in public policy in Scotland.

Single-sex services

The report addresses directly the question of single-sex spaces, by which it clearly means provision based on sex as a biological characteristic. The section dealing with this is worth reproducing as a whole.

Single-sex spaces: a pragmatic approach

We heard a great deal, particularly but not exclusively in our Call for Evidence, about the strong feeling that single-sex spaces are an important aspect of VAWG services and should be protected/continue to be available. We were told that some women were self-excluding from services because of the potential inclusion of trans women, either as staff or as service users. The trauma experienced by women, children and young people as a result of VAWG is well recognised and can endure for a considerable time after they have left the abuser, affecting their interactions with other people and the level of threat they perceive around them. This was frequently cited as a strong rationale for single-sex spaces being guaranteed.

It was impossible to gain a full picture of the extent of this, evidence so far is relatively small scale and the prevailing climate around trans inclusion may prevent more women from speaking openly. We were able to speak to a small group of women who had self-excluded and we were aware of the Scottish Women’s Convention’s report into this issue. It should perhaps also be said for balance that trans inclusion was not raised by participants at any of our other lived experience engagement events.

We also heard a lot about the challenges for service managers of providing inclusive services and trying to maintain a balance between the rights and needs of different groups. We carefully considered the current legal position in relation to protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010. As we understand it, the law does not require identical services to be made available for those with different protected characteristics, (this has long been argued in relation to male victims of domestic abuse for example) and it is within the law to provide different services if they are ‘a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’.

This is happening in practice, and it has taken a great deal of consideration and careful thought to get to this point. The anxiety felt by managers trying to do their best in the current very difficult context was notable. It is possible, as one woman said to us, to be pro-women and not anti-anyone else.

This is, in essence, the position we have taken in this report. Trans women, and indeed trans men, who have experienced abuse require and deserve services that meet their needs. They are a highly stigmatised and discriminated against group. We are currently a long way from being a society which includes, understands and embraces trans people. Much more work needs to be done in this regard.

The main consideration needs to be what services are needed and who provides them. The above in no way reduces the need for single-sex provision for those women who want that option. We need both types of service to be available.

It is therefore our view that single-sex provision should remain, as part of a range of services. This can, as it is currently, be provided in some services alongside a different and equivalent service offer for trans women i.e. without access to shared refuge or groupwork, but with the possibility of access to stand alone refuge, that does not result in their disadvantage or further discrimination, and ensures no regression on secured rights and recognition of trans people. Alternatively, it could be provided as part of the menu of ‘by and for’ services.

The report of the Scottish Government’s Independent Strategic Review of Funding and Commissioning of Violence Against Women and Girls Services, p.32 (emphasis added)

We think this is the first officially published document in Scotland to discuss this issue in such a direct and matter-of-fact way. It reflects what many women have asked for. On the day of publication we welcomed this as compassionate, practical, and carrying a message many women will be relieved to see finally reflected in an official document, that ‘it is possible to be pro-woman and not anti-anyone else.’ 


The report does not engage with the wider argument about language and clarity, raised in the review’s consultation, as recorded below. The only reference to literacy is to electronic literacy. However, it implicitly makes the case for the use of plain language in communicating with service users, not least in highlighting the vulnerability of women and girls who are not fluent English speakers, and those who are learning disabled. It recommends:

45. Standards for specialist services should include training on e.g. intersectional approaches and disability/learning disability.

46. Standards around accessibility should also be developed.

The report of the Scottish Government’s Independent Strategic Review of Funding and Commissioning of Violence Against Women and Girls Services, p.92

A listening process

The report mentions that strong evidence of the demand for single-sex spaces emerged from the call for evidence. The call received 475 responses answering at least one question, of which 393 responses were submitted by individuals and 82 by organisations. The quickest way to see how strongly single-sex services emerged as a theme is to word-search the phrase ‘single-sex’, which is repeatedly cited in the analysis of the responses, often as the most common issue raised in response to individual questions.

The most frequent cross-cutting theme concerned the need for single-sex services and female-only staff. Respondents highlighted that single-sex services should be made into law, widely available, clearly advertised, and co-exist with non-single-sex options. Responses suggested that single-sex spaces are vital to ensuring victims of VAWG feel safe and protected, otherwise women might self-exclude due to religious or cultural reasons.

Violence against women and girls funding review: analysis of responses, 31 January 2023, Executive summary

The review team contacted us late last year and asked to speak to the group of women who the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee had refused to meet during Stage 1 of the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill. The meeting went ahead: the women involved told us they felt listened to, and the review team told us they found the meeting very helpful.

Furthermore, it is a small point, or at least it should be, we and others who have argued for the continuing importance of sex in policy and law were invited to the launch of the review report. People with different views on this issue sat in the same room and nothing terrible happened. We think this is the first time since the first consultation on gender recognition reform in 2017 that this has been organised under a Scottish Government umbrella.

Recognising difference

A key theme of the report is that differences between groups need to be acknowledged and understood in order to provide properly for the whole population.

In a section headed “Lesbian and bisexual women: still not feeling included” it notes:

Lesbian and bisexual women experiencing violence from same-sex partners may not feel that services meet their needs, in spite of much work over recent years to explicitly include them. This can be particularly the case in rural areas, where loss of anonymity is a key factor in preventing victims/survivors from seeking support. Greater visibility of lesbian and bisexual women and consideration of their specific needs, which is largely absent from the VAWG agenda currently, would be welcome.

The report of the Scottish Government’s Independent Strategic Review of Funding and Commissioning of Violence Against Women and Girls Services, p.24

The report’s separate discussion under “Trans survivors: need for development of services” is at page 25: it retains sight of sex, recognising trans men as a relevant and under-provided for group.

Having carefully differentiated between different groups and their distinct needs, at a later point the report’s use of shorthand language blurs this (‘the development of ‘by and for’ services for LBT women might be an example of services which are not available in every locality, but are targeted in areas of higher population, where demand is likely to be sustainably higher, but are open to LBT women from all parts of Scotland’ p.25). However, when we asked what was intended here, we were told that this was not intended to imply that services for these groups should necessarily be combined. The larger message of the report is that recognising differences should help meet everyone’s needs better.

The role of national bodies

The report includes this on the relationship between national and local organisations.

National and local organisations: an imbalance

While direct services are generally, with the exception of the national helplines for domestic abuse and forced marriage and rape, provided by local organisations, the national tier has naturally tended to have closer ties to the Scottish Government. These relationships have developed over time and as a result of the national lobbying role carried out by Rape Crisis Scotland (RCS) and Scottish Women’s Aid (SWA) in particular, and their involvement in policy development.

Both organisations exist to carry out functions which are challenging for their local networks to engage in, given the pressures of service provision. This is an important role, and has undoubtedly brought great benefits to national work to address VAWG.

We were told, however, that there were concerns from local services about what was perceived as an imbalance of power between them and their national organisations. There was a feeling that policy positions were being adopted which did not always reflect their views or experiences and that they felt they were being excluded from opportunities to contribute nationally to policy development. The allocation of funding to the national organisations for disbursement across their networks contributed to this imbalance.

We also heard about the importance of national leadership, coordination, standards, and training in relation to specific key elements of a local multi agency response such as MARACs, MATACs, CEDAR and advocacy. Support from the Improvement Service for VAWPs was also important and all of these should be considered as key components of national work.

The report of the Scottish Government’s Independent Strategic Review of Funding and Commissioning of Violence Against Women and Girls Services, p.30 (emphasis added)

This is an important point, which we hope government, MSPs and journalists will notice. We drew attention to the same issue when we wrote last year to the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and Girls (see here, page 7).

The observation is especially important, given the proposal that as part of making these services a statutory responsibility for local government, ‘Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland’s national service standards should be used to form the initial basis of ensuring a consistent quality of services throughout Scotland’ (Recommendation 44, p.92). Given past policy positions taken by both organisations, in relation to the provision of single-sex services, how that standard-setting role is carried out will deserve careful attention if the recommendation is accepted.

While such provision may already be available locally, as the review report describes, at a national level there has been resistance to recognising as legitimate any demand for the sort of approach the review proposes. In a submission to the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee last year, HEAL Survivors noted the difficulty women have had in obtaining clarity and reassurance from national bodies about the availability of single sex services in Scotland, and how women can identify and access services with certainty, and without fear of how they will be treated. For example, in 2019, a group of survivors met the Chief Executive of Rape Crisis Scotland to seek reassurance about this. An account of the meeting was included in the HEAL submission (pages 13-16): it records that attendees ‘left severely distressed by what we had been told.’

More generally, statements from national level bodies have been used politically to diminish women’s concerns here over several years. They have used generic references to ‘trans inclusion’ to dismiss concerns about conflating sex and gender identity. HEAL’s submission described the Chief Executive of RCS giving evidence to the MSPs as ‘treating three quite different approaches as though they were one single approach… There are several different ways organisations working in the Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWAG) sector can operate a trans-inclusive policy.’ HEAL added that the Committee ‘failed to ascertain which kind of trans-inclusive policies Ms Brindley was referring to and failed to ask whether it had adopted one that allowed it to continue to meet the needs of female survivors for a female-only therapeutic environment.’

Edging back to normal?

We recognise that people will take different views on how far this report goes towards resolving the problems generated by conflating gender identity and sex in the provision of these services. How far the specific recommendations are taken forward will further depend on the Scottish Government, whose formal response is now awaited. However, regardless of what happens next, we think this report is a landmark. The review took the trouble to listen to arguments for sex mattering in this context and treated them as an ordinary position, deserving engagement and serious attention – as something normal to want, and normal to provide. A good, professional process meant that women asking for this felt listened to, and not demonised. Startlingly, that alone is significant progress in how this issue is discussed at national level in Scotland.