How Action Aid UK erased sex

International development organisations are in the habit of saying “gender” when they mean “sex”. They use it as a polite euphemism, and to reflect that it is social norms, not biology itself, that holds women back. As UN Women says:

Gender: refers to the social attributes and opportunities associated with being male and female and the relationships between women and men and girls and boys, as well as the relations between women and those between men.

But this leaves organisations vulnerable to a bait-and-switch move where recognition of sex is erased altogether in favour of the idea that everyone has a gender identity and this is what makes them a man or woman (or both or neither). Organisations that adopt this ideological stance find themselves committing to throwing away the language, laws, concepts and data that allow a clear focus on the reality of women’s lives, the vulnerability of women and girls to sexual assault, and the sex of the perpetrators. And they do it remarkably carelessly.

Sex matters, and ignoring it is dangerous. This is particularly true for safeguarding, something international development organisations have been struggling with. Denial of sex impacts on policies for single-sex services, and undermines the ability of organisations to undertake risk assessment. An organisational culture which coerces individuals not to talk about the sexes clearly, is incompatible with safeguarding. Ultimately the pressure to accept deliberate misrepresentation of reality is a corrupting force for organisational cultures.

On July 15 I blew the whistle on the existence of a policy by ActionAidUK that denies sex and ignores the safeguarding risks of this. I have been in public and private engagement with them since then. They asked for patience I have given them time and space to come clean about the existence of this policy, but they have continued to obfuscate; denying that this ever was their policy, and seeking to move on with a promise of a consultation based on “trust, confidentiality, and the spirit of being constructive”.

I do not think there can be trust in a process for moving on without honesty about how we go here, and so I think that the best thing to do is to publicly document what has happened so far.


On July 15 Barrister Sarah Phillimore published a message shared with her by an Action Aid UK supporter who wrote asking them to clarify the words sex and gender. This was the response she got:

“We agree that words are important. As ActionAid UK is an organisation focused on supporting the most marginalised women and girls in the world, it is important to us that we are clear that when we are talking about women and girls, we are including transgender women and girls in our definition of women and girls.

ActionAid UK defines women and girls as anyone who self-identifies as a woman or a girl. Allowing self-determination of our bodies is a basic feminist principle. ActionAid UK understands there is no such thing as a ‘biologically female/male body’, and that a person’s genitalia doesn’t determine their gender. As such, we’ve used the word gender not sex, and include trans women and girls in our definition of women and girls. ActionAid UK also recognises that many non-binary people and trans men face gender discrimination.”

Many people were shocked, alarmed and dismayed that an organisation that works for women and girls rights could so easily say that sex doesn’t matter. FGM survivor, author and campaigner Hibo Wadere was one of the people who complained.

Most people assumed that it was the work of a single over enthusiastic staff member. But after I tweeted about it, I obtained a copy of a 6 page Action Aid UK document on “Trans Rights at Action Aid UK”.

This was not published on the website, but was dated November 2019 and branded and laid out as a corporate document. It includes the exact words quoted in the ActionAidUK supporter relations email above, and is framed with strong statements such as:

We have committed to an explicit positioning framework to help inform colleagues and help them to challenge their own thinking in terms of how inclusive we / they are being. This includes how we talk to each other, how we talk about the work we do, and how we communicate externally.”

You can read my blog with excerpts from it here. I am publishing the whole document here for transparency.

Following hundreds of supporters tweeting to ActionAid and many cancelling subscriptions ActionAid issued a statement on July 17:

“We take the topic of inclusion very seriously; however, trustees have not yet had the opportunity to discuss a trans inclusion policy in relation to the organisation’s charitable mission working with women and girls in the world’s poorest countries. Trustees are committed to doing so. These are complex issues that require consideration and consultation with our stakeholders and rights-holders.”

ActionAid is committed to being an inclusive organisation for everyone and we are working with our staff, stakeholders and rights-holders to develop clear policies that recognise the rights and needs of everyone.

While it is good news that Action Aid UK trustees are committed to developing clear policies that recognise the rights and needs of everyone, how could it be that the trustees had not yet had the opportunity to discuss a trans inclusion policy if ActionAidUK had already adopted a policy which erased sex and said that people become women through self definition?

The story was reported in the Telegraph on 17 July. Sarah Phillimore, Hibo Wadere and biologist Dr Emma Hilton and I wrote an open letter and sent it to the Telegraph and to ActionAid CEO Girish Mennon and co-chair of trustees, Helen Pankhurst:


ActionAid is an international charity that works with women and girls around the world who face violence including rape, female genital mutilation, sexual exploitation and child marriage.

It is heartbreaking and insulting that staff and trustees sitting in its London offices have adopted an official policy that there is “no such thing as a ‘biologically female/male body’” and that all it means to be a woman or a girl is to identify as one.

The Telegraph calls this a “trans row” 17 July 2020 and calls those who stand up for the reality that women are female ‘anti-trans campaigners’. In fact we support transgender peoples’ human rights and understand this does not require denying that sex exists.

We call on Co-Chair of Trustees Helen Pankhurst and CEO Girish Menon to reconsider their policy, which is wrong and harmful. It is not in-line with UK law or the reality of life of women and girls around the world.

Maya Forstater
Emma Hilton
Sarah Phillimore
Hibo Wadere

While the letter didn’t get published I (alone) got a response:

The claims in the email were at odds with the document I had seen, which is presented as a corporate statement of policy. The document does not mention being “one view” or being an input to a process of internal discussion, nor does it reference the “start of a listening process”, in fact it explicitly states that the views of supporters who disagree with the policy are to be discounted:

“we are aware that there are differing views amongst some of our supporters …whatever position we take we may lose a small number of supporters…whether we might lose supporters is not a consideration in terms of our commitment.”

The idea that it was “ inaccurate to perceive this as an official policy” was hard to believe. While ActionAidUK said they were investigating what had happened I started investigating myself.

What I learnt was that the document was sent out by the CEO to all staff in an email to “set the record straight” after he had referenced the organisation’s stance at a charity finance conference in October 2019.

Girish Menon at the Charity Finance Summit

The email from the CEO presents the document in these terms:

“Diversity and Inclusion, (D&I) is a core part of our Feminist Behaviour framework ….as part of this working with the LGBTI+ network, we have developed a paper on our trans approach … Please find this attached.”

….If you have any queries regarding anything to do with our D&I approach then please speak to either myself or Andrea Metcalf”

I emailed Girish Menon and asked for a telephone call. Menon did not respond, and I began to see that supporters were receiving similar messages claiming the document was part of a process of internal discussions, and was “one view” and the “start of a listening process”.

I tweeted about this on 22 July, highlighting that while the organisation was saying it was investigating the source of a document, I had reason to believe it had been internally communicated as “our approach” in November 2019 by the CEO in an all-staff email. I also wrote to Girish Menon and Helen Pankhurst:

Email — 22 July

Dear Girish and Helen

I reached out for a call today with Girish but got no response

I see that this statement that the policy was shared “in error” is now being shared publicly and I cannot be complicit in that.

My understanding is that it was shared to all staff as an official document in an email attachment from the CEO. While I am glad that you are reviewing the policy and planning consultation this cannot happen in good faith if staff who received the document as official policy have to pretend that they did not, and in turn must be dishonest to consultees about what commitments have already been made and communicated.

The statement that there is no such thing as male/female bodies and that being a girl and a woman is a matter of self-determination is anti-scientific, insulting to the women you work with and damaging to Action Aid’s credibility. It does not take an extensive consultation to discover that in fact sex is real.

Any consultation with stakeholders on how to ensure that transgender members of staff are supported, and about ‘trans inclusion’ in the organisations programming needs to be undertaken from the basis of honesty about how Action Aid came to adopt, and communicate to staff and supporters that there is no such thing as biological sex.

Yours sincerely

Maya Forstater

Helen Pankhurst emailed me back:

This new statement that it was a draft policy that had not been signed off was at odds both with the previous statement that it was “one view” in an internal consultation, and with the way the document had been presented internally (and later externally) as an agreed approach.

I wrote back to Girish Menon and to co-chairs Helen Pankhurst and John Monks — it is a long letter and I asked for it to be shared with the board of trustees.

In it I highlighted again that the document was credibly communicated both internally and externally as a corporate policy. Continuing to blame supporters and other stakeholders for “wrongly” perceiving this as a document which Action Aid must take responsibility for erodes any trust we have left.

I stressed that the reason it is so important to be honest about the status of the document, and how it came to be presented as organisational policy is because the policy risks undermining safeguarding. I called on the trustees to recognise that putting out what appeared to be an organisational policy denying that sex is real, and telling employees to pretend that there are no such thing as male/female bodies, which remained in place with an ambiguous status for 8 months until pointed out by whistleblowers, was a safeguarding issue, not simply a reputation and supporter relations headache.

I called on them to demonstrate accountability and transparency in the handling of what has happened here, including the role of trustees, the SLT and the LGBTQI+ network, and external advisors such as Gendered Intelligence.

I warned that ActionAid UK is falling into the same mistake again; of making ambiguous statements of commitment. It now says “we stand by the principle of trans inclusion” but the principle itself has not been defined and the board has not yet had opportunity to discuss it.

I suggested that the principles of “trust, confidentiality, and the spirit of being constructive” are vague and inadequate (and in fact dangerous) for the process of developing a policy. The starting points must be the trustee’s accountability, the organisation’s mission and its safeguarding and equality commitments.

I recommended that ActionAidUK take four steps:

  1. Apologise to supporters and stakeholders, particularly women who have experienced FGM such as Hibo Wadere for denying the material reality that 51% of the world’s population are female and cannot identify out of this. (Shockingly they have not responded at all to Hibo Wadere, who has written to them publicly and privately).
  2. Be honest and accountable about the status of the document and how it came to be presented to staff by the CEO as policy.
  3. Reiterate the organisation’s commitment to policies that it understands and has already established: human rights , safeguarding, its feminist principles, its diversity and inclusion policy.
  4. Use these policies as the framework for developing a proportionate approach to transgender identity in the organisation and its programming. The starting principle should be that everything you do is driven by evidence based analysis, aligned to your mission, assessed against safeguarding and equality commitments and openly and transparently communicated.

Yesterday I received this reply, this time from Girish Menon:

Since then I have learnt that in fact Action Aid has already committed to the policy of saying you become a woman by self-identifying. Their Diversity and Inclusion policy (dated 2019) already says “when we refer to women within this policy, we are referring to individuals who self-identify as women”.

It is utterly ridiculous and offensive to suggest that women (whether in Action Aid’s offices in the UK or in the countries where it works) face sex discrimination and sexual assault as a result of self identifying as member of the group that are the targets of this, and not on the basis of their sex. And that female people do not have any particular needs as a group. It is also out of line with UK law, which still defines woman as “a female of any age” .

Yet this has already been agreed in a clear official policy by Action Aid UK. The redefinition of “women” to erase sex was simply a footnote to a policy that the senior leadership team and the trustees agreed without anyone feeling it mattered enough, or feeling safe enough, to speak up.

Action Aid, like all charities and organisations is in the midst of a much bigger crisis and storm and as, Menon told civil society colleagues this week they should:

Focus on your mission. Remember who you are, remember what your purpose is, remember what you are here to deliver and make sure that is what we are doing all the time.

The temptation to brush under the carpet the fact that they so carelessly forgot that sex matters must be strong, but their integrity depends on owning this, putting it right, and remembering what their purpose is.

This is mainly where I write about sex and gender

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