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How a service set up for traumatised women forgot its core function

How a service set up for traumatised women forgot its core function

Evidence from the employment tribunal involving Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre stirred some distressing memories. A service designed to help traumatised women appears to have forgotten its core purpose.

In a constructive dismissal case, Roz Adams, a counsellor, said she was told that revealing the biological sex of support workers was transphobic – even if it was done to reassure a rape survivor that she’d be talking to another female. 

For many sexually abused women, a male presence can cause distress. The Equality Act uses rape counselling as an example of a service where it is proportionate to “discriminate”, for example by restricting counselling jobs to women. The 2010 Act is also clear that men who identify as women (it uses the term transsexual) can be excluded in such circumstances. 

Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre claims to be a woman-only space. However, the tribunal heard it believes a woman is anyone who identifies as such, even those with male bodies. A 60-year-old woman who inquired if male-born people would attend her support session was allegedly turned away. 

Rape Crisis Scotland last week took the unusual step of issuing a statement about the Edinburgh tribunal before evidence concluded. The umbrella group seemed to distance itself from the Edinburgh centre, saying services should be “survivor-centred” and “protect dedicated women-only spaces”. The effrontery of this defies belief.  

The leadership of Rape Crisis Scotland has been a cheerleader for the removal of women’s sex-based rights. It fully supported the Gender Recognition Reform Act and the notion of self-ID, and failed to endorse former Labour MSP Johann Lamont’s successful amendment to the Forensic Services Bill, designed to ensure victims of sexual assault could choose the sex of their medical examiner.

When I was an MSP, I was approached by several women who needed to access rape crisis support, but wanted the assurance of a female-only service. They were concerned about statements by Mridul Wadhwa,  a trans-identified male, who then ran Forth Valley Rape Crisis and had a senior role training volunteers in the service across Scotland. Wadhwa publicly criticised the part of the Equality Act that allowed jobs in the violence against women sector to be reserved for females. The Forth Valley Rape Crisis Twitter page was illustrated with a photograph of protestors brandishing a pink and blue trans-rights flag. 

I contacted the chief executive of Rape Crisis Scotland, Sandy Brindley, to request a meeting. It was a sensitive undertaking. These were distressed women. Most had not met each other in person. We gathered in the offices of Edinburgh Rape Crisis, which were welcoming and comfortable. Myself, Sandy Brindley, and the representative of Edinburgh Rape Crisis gave our full names and job titles. The women used first names only and shared their stories.

One introduced herself simply as “Sharon”. It was assumed she was one of the survivors. However, Sharon soon became quite vocal, asserting that it was against the law to insist your rape counsellor was biologically female (something other experts on the Equality Act dispute). She was, it turned out, Sharon Cowan, a professor of Feminist and Queer Legal Studies, a high-profile trans-rights campaigner who has submitted evidence to both the UK and Scottish parliaments on reform of the gender recognition act advocating for gender self-ID.

Bringing a third-party campaigner to a meeting of such vulnerable women without asking their permission, or even offering an introduction, was and remains astounding to me. And, indeed, Brindley later apologised for this oversight in an email.

Sandy Brindley later claimed Cowan was there to offer a “legal perspective” and they did not know the women were survivors. However, contrary to that, the emails sent to Brindley by my staff had explained the women’s backgrounds.

There were assertions made during that meeting that anyone who identifies as a woman could be a rape counsellor or join a group session. And when survivors asked how a woman may feel if she unknowingly disclosed details of her rape to a male counsellor on the telephone… No adequate answer was provided. It shocked me then as it still does now, that given 100 per cent of rapes in Scotland are committed by men this appeared to not be an issue for the head of Rape Crisis Scotland.

It became apparent, some years later, that this did not concern others in the network when Mridul Wadhwa was appointed chief executive of Edinburgh Rape Crisis and immediately – and notoriously – suggested in a podcast interview that abused women could be bigots and counselling services may help them “reframe their trauma”. Much of this has been explored during the current tribunal case.

Rape Crisis Scotland and the network it serves receives large amounts of public money (some of which in Edinburgh’s case is paying the services of a KC to fight this case). It’s legitimate to ask how they use this resource. Like other government funded “official” women’s organisations in Scotland, Rape Crisis say sex self-ID causes no problems. But what I can’t forget is that I was in the room when its CEO heard those women, saw their distress, and knew they were self-excluding from a service they needed.

The women made a meeting note, which Brindley later disputed as being an accurate reflection. But it seemed to me as someone who was there that it was an accurate summary and informs this article. They later shared their experience of that meeting with the Scottish Parliamentary committee examining the Gender Recognition Reform Bill. Nobody paid them much attention then. Let’s hope, in the light of recent revelations from the employment tribunal, they are believed now.

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