Economic Autonomy and the Independent Women's Movement

Transition houses and rape crisis centres were invented by feminists in response to the crisis of male violence. Vancouver Rape Relief was the first rape crisis centre to open in Canada (1973), adding a transition house in the early 1980s. No level of government currently provides operational funding to BC rape crisis centres. Transition houses are partially funded through one-year contracts with the provincial government.

Vancouver Rape Relief has always operated not as an agency dedicated to social service, but as a collective of women who together provide services directly to women escaping male violence, while always working toward social change that would end male violence altogether. This collective operates as part of a global, autonomous women's movement.  

Autonomy for Women's Groups

Just as individual women can be coerced when we are economically dependent upon or tied to men, women's groups likewise require economic autonomy in order to operate in women's best interests. We lobby for governments to provide operational funds to women's equality-seeking organizations, based on the analysis that these groups' advocacy for women will be necessary and desirable until equality is achieved.

In particular, we call for operational funding, so that women's groups can craft projects, programs, and strategies appropriate for their local context and take into account current political conditions. Instead, governments and foundations typically offer project funding, which risks that women's groups shape their work to fit the funding mandate, rather than the objectives emerging from their frontline expertise.

Moreover, though women's interests could be tied to other social change movements, history has not shown that other movements adequately address the interests of women. Thus, an independent women's movement remains a useful social change strategy. Given that women tend to be the poorest worldwide, that women are responsible for children and the elderly, and that women therefore represent the interests of the least powerful, a social change movement that benefits the least powerful should benefit all.

Why women's groups require a diverse funding base

The autonomy of the women's movement is comparable to the need of individual women to economic autonomy.

Women's groups must be able to operate in women's best interests, without constraints imposed by funding bodies. In order to be trustworthy to women callers, a transition house and rape crisis line must be able to assure women that their personal records are secure from scrutiny by those who might use those records counter to the woman's best interests. For example, a financial contract that calls for women's names to be released to the funding body puts a woman directly at risk if her attacker works in the funding agency. Moreover, if a woman is requiring advocacy to struggle for her entitlement from the state, the agency working alongside her must be able to critique the state without threat to its own funds.

At a broader level, a women's group must have enough economic autonomy to be able to take the opportunities that present themselves in the ongoing and shifting struggle toward women's equality. Equality-seeking groups with a diverse and strong financial base can create their own capacity to be a strong and critical voice of social structures, as their survival is not contingent on one financial source.

Here in BC, some women's groups have folded due to lack of funding. Others face continued pressure to shift their work to suit project-oriented grant opportunities. While special projects are, of course, important in the work toward equality, the ongoing operation of many types of women's groups is key to the future of women's autonomy, and we must ask in whose interests it is when women's groups cannot conduct research, or staff drop-in centres or libraries (for example) and are instead pressed only to deliver only a particular level of service. 

For an excellent article on this topic, please see:

The Struggle to Maintain Grassroots Responses to Violence Against Women

by Mandi Bonisteel Read More