At Engender’s AGM on Saturday, the CEO, Emma Ritch made an interesting comment: “I would like to be clear here that Engender is not funded for a huge amount of engagement and are not presenting our work as advocating on behalf of the members or as representative of women. The colleagues at the Scottish Women’s Convention are funded in this way and we are glad to hear from members but our work is quite technical. I would not want to give the impression that membership privileges certain perspectives above others.”
Engender are 94% funded by the Scottish Government and in the last financial year they had income of £381,000. At the same meeting it was revealed that they estimated they had spent less than £10,000 on commissioning research. The funding from the Scottish Government comes from a pot designated for ‘intermediary’ organisations, yet, by Ms Ritch’s own admission, they do not engage with members (the number of which they will not reveal) nor women more broadly. Criticism of Engender has included comments that they appear to “broadcast” to the membership rather than listen. It would seem reasonable – indeed essential – to ask in what sense they are an intermediary body?
Engender frequently advises the Scottish Government and their recommendations are assumed to carry weight. Yet, it would appear that the body of their work is dependent on a handful of individuals who are examining and promoting policy based on personal opinion without the support of commissioned research or engagement with a constituent base.
The Scottish Women’s Convention to which Ms Ritch refers was set up by the Scottish Executive in 2003 in recognition of the need to ensure women’s voices reached policy makers. They state: “the organisation seeks to illustrate real women’s views, opinions and concerns on key policy areas. Women have a right to be heard. Decision makers have a right to listen.” We concur, and would note that this also applies equally to policy areas which fall to Engender’s remit and with which SWC do not appear to engage. Currently, women’s voices are not heard on some of these essential matters and Engender has stated they have no intention to remedy this.
Ministers are either unaware or are overlooking this important fact when they give weight to Engender’s conclusions or allow them to shape policy (which is odd, as they have stated previously that they do not represent women). In giving evidence to the Justice committee and in answer to the rationale for the exclusion of sex in the Hate Crime Bill, the cabinet secretary, Humza Yousaf, remarked “Engender in particular has led the campaign against it, producing a briefing and publishing a report on its reasons, which I think that it distributed to every MSP. From its perspective, there are some compelling arguments not to introduce a sex aggravator.” Yet if seen as the opinion of a few individual researchers, Engender’s position should carry no more weight than that of other policy groups and should be assessed on the merits of the evidence rather than, as the Minister asserted, that of a “national organisation”.
It should also be noted that although Engender claim to be a feminist organisation, they only reflect a rather narrow strand of feminist thought. They certainly never present or commission arguments from other schools of feminism which might be considered a weakness in a body dedicated to the promotion of feminism in policy and law. It is a concern we have previously addressed here.
At the AGM, it also emerged that Engender appeared to have knowledge of the structure and process of the proposed working group on Misogynistic Harassment. We were concerned that they intimated that the inclusion of sex as aggravating factor would not even be considered by the group, saying they did not feel it was helpful. We feel strongly that this preempts consideration by the Committee and allows for an outcome pre-determined not by MSPs, but by a group not open to scrutiny or question and unrepresentative of the wider views of Scottish women.
To return to the initial quote, if membership does not admit engagement and the opportunity to forward arguments and there are no other ways for women in Scotland to have an input to the position Engender takes, we must ask which perspectives are “privileged” and how this is determined? After all, three hundred and eighty thousand pounds is a substantial amount of public money for Government to pay to hear what may, after all, be the personal views of a handful of like-minded women of similar background. This is not to say that Engender has no useful impacts: however for almost £400,000 a year one would hope so.
Click here for a pdf of the transcript of Engenders AGM.