Two weeks ago, Cambridgeshire received what sounded like good news: it had been chosen to pilot the government’s scheme for ‘participatory budgeting’. Described as "allowing local people to decide how public money is spent in their community", you’d be forgiven for thinking we might be able to make local priorities known.

But the budget is to be allocated within just one sector: services responding to violence against women and girls. Charities invited to compete include Cambridge Women’s Aid, Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre, and Cambridge Women and Homelessness. The public will be entrusted with only £11,500, and no bid will receive more than £3000.

The scheme seems to be based more on TV than transparent democracy. At first, eight bids "will be shortlisted" (we have not been told by whom, or how). Then the people will choose which to fund, voting via text or just one physical venue for the whole county, Cambridge Central Library. How this poll will be publicised, and how, for example, multiple voting will be prevented, has not been made clear. However, even if this project didn’t make a mockery out of democracy, it would still be an unacceptable way to fund services addressing violence against women.

This sector, both nationally and locally, has for decades campaigned tirelessly for its professional services and for the crimes it addresses to be taken seriously. It responds to such issues as domestic abuse, rape, child sexual abuse, prostitution, human trafficking, female genital mutilation and so-called ‘honour-based’ violence. Misconceptions and myths about these issues are endemic in our society.

For instance, the overlap between sexual violence and domestic violence goes unnoticed (45% of rapes of adult women, identified in the British Crime Survey 2000, were perpetrated by the woman’s partner). The connection between prostitution and child sexual abuse is also little known: around half of women in prostitution have been sexually abused as children, and the average age to be brought into the industry is 13-14 (Paying the Price, 2004).

As a society, we are not specialists in these difficult and complex issues: asking us to choose between these closely interrelated charities is as absurd as voting on funding the Addenbrookes surgical team v. cancer care.

There are various pernicious and widespread myths: a recent survey found that one in three people believe that if a man rapes a woman who is wearing revealing clothing, she is to blame (Wake up to Rape, 2011). As a society we surround these crimes with immense shame and stigma, silencing women, and worsening our underestimation of the prevalence and effects of violence and abuse.

Rape is a subject for jokes and sensationalist TV dramas, while most rapists never face a courtroom, let alone prison.

In the face of such attitudes to violence against women, how are these charities to appeal for votes? Are they expected to describe their work in gory detail, to ‘sex it up’ to attract attention? Will they minimise their involvement in those forms of abuse which attract less public sympathy?

The competitive aspect of this process is repellent for deeper reasons. Making women’s charities fight amongst themselves creates division amongst services that work best together, and sabotages united campaigns to reduce gender-based violence, or to secure funding. Even before the cuts, the struggles this sector faced to obtain funding were sometimes overwhelming.

In 2007, Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre closed due to chronic lack of funding, only to be reopened by women students, with help from other charities. National funding for Rape Crisis Centres is much lower than expected, and local funding for domestic violence services has not yet been secured as uncut. If the wider sector is to survive the current cuts, solidarity is crucial.

Real participatory budgeting has been happening for years. It involves giving communities genuine, transparent choice about more than a trifling £11,500, but only once core services meeting vital needs have been adequately funded.

Trying to implement it in this climate makes it nothing more than a fig leaf for the cutting of core services. Choosing violence against women and girls for a tiny budget entrusted to the community simply exploits these issues for political points.

Facing the tragic but everyday reality of violence against women and girls is deeply unpopulist. The work that these agencies do is desperately difficult, complex and needs-driven. They provide basic services of safety and support to only a fraction of the women and girls who need them.

These charities will be grateful for every penny which comes their way, but this is not the way to do it. Services meeting national needs require national strategy, with adequate, long-term, ring-fenced funding: anything less insults these women and trivialises the crimes which have been committed against them.

This farcical X-factor scheme, making women’s charities compete for pennies, goes beyond trivialising to voyeuristic and exploitative.

If you wish to feed back to the Home Office on your views about this pilot, there is a brief survey at:

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