Action Aid’s Policy Goes Right to The Top

Barrister Sarah Phillimore has blogged about an email she received from a supporter of Action Aid UK who wrote to the organisation to ask about the problem of conflating “gender” and “sex.

Women and girls are being discriminated against and abused on the basis of their sex. Words are important and it needs to be crystal clear who is being subject to the violence so we can help those most in need”.

Action Aid UK‘s reply included the utterly gobsmacking statement

ActionAid UK understands there is no such thing as a ‘biologically female/male body’

[Graphic by @jebrux]

A reminder:

  • 200 million women and girls have undergone female genital mutilation.
  • In many settings women do 10 x unpaid care work as men
  • 200 million women need but lack access to contraception
  • 25 million unsafe abortions take place
  • 130 million school-aged girls do not attend school
  • Thirty-five percent of women experience physical or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime

Action Aid’s response suggests these things don’t happen to women and girls on account of being born female, but because they self-determined into the class of people to whom these things happen (and could self determine out).

You could be forgiven for thinking perhaps this is the work of an under supervised social media assistant, after all if you do a Google search for these words the only results that come up are Sarah’s article, and FGM activist Hibo Wadere’s tweet about it.

Google search for “Action Aid understands there is no such thing as a ‘biologically female/ male body” 15 July 2020

But in fact Action Aid’s internal policy document’s show that the idea that sex does not exist is embedded in ActionAidUK’s trans rights policy document, signed this off at the highest level. The senior leadership team has been trained on it and has committed to set a firm “tone from the top”. But none of this information has been communicated externally.

Action Aid’s Policy

Action Aid’s official internal policy document defines “trans” using the stonewall umbrella definition which includes crossdressers, gender-queer, gender-fluid etc…

They define women and girls as “anyone who self-identifies as a woman or girl”

So female people who identify as non-binary, genderless, trans-man, neutrois a are excluded from their vision of women and women’s rights (although they recognise that they also face ‘gender discrimination’). And males who crossdress as women, even on a part time basis are included in their definition of women (on the days when they self-identify as such).

Note these are not the definitions of man and woman that are in the Equality Act 2010 — the legal framework which includes sex discrimination in the UK. Nor does it allow any space for analysis of the material reality of women’s lives.

Everyone welcome?

They say they want to shape AAUK as a place where everyone we work with feels welcome. AAUK “recognises that male/female is a binary notion (rooted in patriarchy) that can exclude people on the basis of gender identity.”

“We aim to ensure that all staff and rights-holders have the freedom to express themselves fully” they say … (I suspect if you share the view of the majority of the UK population that man and woman mean male and female biology (not gender identity), you don’t feel all that free to express that view).

The policy includes the steps that Action Aid are taking to be more inclusive of trans colleagues (all those who fit in the Stonewall definition above, including crossdressers, gender-queer etc…). Most toilets are “non-gendered” (i.e. mixed sex). Presumably the others are “gendered” (i.e. also mixed sex). How welcome this makes women who prefer not to share toilets with male colleagues and visitors? They don’t say.

Pronouns are in email signatures (so far on a voluntary basis) and trans inclusive language guide is being developed for external communication (watch this space for “people who menstruate”).

How can you do safeguarding and deny that sex exists?

The policy includes a diagram of how the whole thing fits together in the organisation.

At the top “My Feminist Behaviours” (these are self awareness, self care, dismantling bias, inclusion, sharing power, responsible and transparent use of power, accountable collaboration, respectful feedback, courage and zero tolerance).

These words sound nice, but in practice suggests a outline for institutional struggle sessions (the principle of Courage “Taking initiative, learning from mistakes and not fearing failure” is immediately followed by the principle of Zero-tolerance… )

At the other end of the chain is “all people related policies and processes” — the carrot and stick of hiring, firing and promotion, and the threat of disciplinary action. Also in the chain are the ideological enforcers: the “Inclusion Reference Group” (I wonder if there is anyone on the Inclusion Reference Group with the courage to state that sex matters? I suspect that would be met with ‘zero tolerance’)

Right in the middle of the chain is the Safeguarding Framework. Development NGOs have been struggling to get their house in order over sexual abuse and exploitation. As the Safeguarding Framework sets out the term “sexual abuse” means the

actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions.

But at Action Aid they believe there is no such thing as a male or female body (or at least they are willing to say they believe this) and no need for single sex spaces in which people can get changed and washed in privacy from member of the opposite sex.

Try talking about threats of a sexual nature without acknowledging that sex exists.

Try having a robust safeguarding culture where there is “zero tolerance” for anyone admitting that they do think male and female bodies exists , or disagreeing with the idea that any male who self-determines as having a female identity should be allowed to share spaces where women and girls are undressing.

This is mainly where I write about sex and gender

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store