Here’s Why Women’s Charities in the UK Are Closing Down
by Lucille Stengel
Heba Women’s Project and the Feminist Library are two landmark London-based organisations at threat of closure this year, despite significant mobilisation from supporters in the past months. Their situation mirrors the situation of many other organisations in the UK, which, in an increasingly capitalist landscape, are not recognised for their community work as they were in the past.
Heba Women’s Project was set up 25 years ago to train migrant women in the East End with garment production skills. For a quarter of a decade, the organisation provided women who had recently arrived in London with work opportunities, professional certificates, and a safe place to work. It only took a short encounter with the women at Heba to understand the phenomenal impact that the organisation has had on the community — without the organisation, most of its members wouldn’t have the confidence to pursue enterprising activities in London. Most of them, in fact, wouldn’t speak English.
But last year, Heba’s rent in trendy Shoreditch was raised by 200% by its landlord, making it almost impossible for the organisation to remain financially sustainable. Shortly after that in autumn 2015, Heba lost its two major funders — the Tower Hamlets local council and City Bridge. For the first time without local funding, the organisation had to stop providing English and sewing courses. It also had to close down its nursery, despite being the only place providing these services in the area.
Anjum Istiaq has managed Heba for 12 years now and got to know all the women personally. But since last year, she hasn’t been able to focus on helping the women. Instead, she has been chasing funding, which she knows is now almost impossible to find due to recent changes in funding criteria. “Our work used to be recognised as skills development work, but now the criteria for funding is job creation. We have to prove that we have an immediate impact on jobs, when it takes about three years to train a designer. There is no recognition of our long-term impact on women’s wellbeing and their personal development,” explains Anjum.
Heba’s situation isn’t an isolated case. Earlier this year, the Feminist Library, an organisation providing access to feminist archives, was also threatened of eviction by the Southwark Council, which decided to charge the organisation with the same rent as commercial businesses. It would be unfair, explained the council, to give special treatment to the Feminist Library. This would mean that other organisations that pay open-market rent cannot benefit fully from empty buildings.
The Council’s argument is obviously flawed. In a city like London, it is almost impossible for community organisations to thrive at open-market rent. But the fact that women’s organisation don’t generate as much revenue as business doesn’t mean their work isn’t as valuable — organisations like Heba and the Feminist Library have a crucial impact on communities. Their work is instrumental in bringing about gender equality, whether by helping women re-claim their own history, or providing them with a safe place to work.
This impact is tangible. It cuts across women’s wellbeing and mental health, their long-term employability, and more broadly, their recognition within society. Yet, paradoxically such impact is also increasingly overlooked by funders, carrying significant consequences for women, and particularly those in lower-income brackets.
In a 2012 report on the issue, the Fawcett Society already warned against the negative impact of funding cuts on women, pointing that “Women are bearing the brunt of the cuts to public spending, which affect the supply of jobs, the availability of social assistance and welfare support, and the provision of public services.” In 2016, the situation seems to have worsened for women’s charities, calling for more gender-awareness in policing.
Support the Feminist Library by donating to its emergency fund and sharing the work on social media. You can also purchase Heba’s designs online on women’s retailer Birdsong. 70% of the proceeds will go back directly to the women at Heba.