The women's voluntary sector is in crisis, according to Vivienne Hayes, director of the Women's Resource Centre. She hopes that landing a contract to run a ChangeUp national support programme will help the umbrella body tackle the situation.
Last month, the organisation was appointed by Capacitybuilders to run the equalities and diversity programme, one of the nine national infrastructure programmes that will replace the six current hubs of national expertise in April.
Hayes says the women's sector suffers from a lack of funding and from Government attempts to make its policies gender-neutral. "We are in crisis," she says. "We are seeing women's organisations closing or being forced to merge."
A major problem, Hayes says, is funding for the sub-sector, which she estimates is made up of 30,000 charities. "Only 1.2 per cent of central government funding goes to the women's sector, which makes up 7 per cent of charities. Is that acceptable?"
One problem for women's charities is a widespread belief that women have achieved equality, she says. "If you look at the press, there is this belief that women have got equality so we do not need to 'do it' any more," she says. "Yes, we have had a female Prime Minister, but cases of violence against women have not gone down."
Hayes says a low conviction rate for men accused of rape is symbolic of the lack of equality for women in society more generally.
"It is a great indicator of how far we need to go," she says. "We have changed superficially but not intrinsically. We would like to see a cross-party approach to the sustainability of the women's sector."
The centre was probably the least known of the organisations that were asked to play a lead role in the new-look ChangeUp programme.
Initially a drop-in resource centre for female teachers, it was established more than 20 years ago and registered as a charity in 1988. "Eight years ago, a consultation asked women's organisations what they wanted and they said a second-tier umbrella body," says Hayes. "So that is how we became what we are now."
The reinvented organisation campaigns on behalf of the women's community sector, as well as providing support and training for its 350 member bodies. Feminism is one of its core values. "It's a bit of a dirty word these days, but for me it just means equality," Hayes says.
Consultation with front-line providers will be central to how the organisation runs the programme. "Our relationship with grass-roots organisations is very important," she says. "Giving them the opportunity to have a voice is integral to all that we do.
"We like to do things in a way that is open and transparent. We consult people - if they're involved, they get ownership and buy-in."
Hayes says that, despite its roots, the charity will not focus its work solely on women: "We have led partnerships before that have not been focused on the women's sector."
Although the centre is the lead organisation for the programme, it will also work to deliver the service with partner groups Voice4Change England, umbrella body Navca, the Consortium of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Voluntary and Community Organisations and Humanity, Equality and Rights, a group made up from equalities and generic front-line and infrastructure organisations.
Hayes hopes the future will be brighter for women's organisations as a result of the contract. "It is a fabulous thing for the women's sector," she says. "They will see 'women' in the name and women taking the lead."
2004: Director, Women's Resource Centre
2001: Director, Wandsworth Women's Aid
1999: Manager, Newpin centre for young mothers
1998: Chair, Lambeth Women's Aid