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Women's Aid, the domestic violence charity whose patrons include the prime minister's wife, Sarah Brown, says its female-only services are essential to reassure battered women and children that they will be safe. However, some local authorities are demanding that services such as counselling and outreach be opened to both sexes.
Fiona Mactaggart, the former Home Office minister, said some refuge services had lost grants or contracts in what she said was an "unintended consequence" of changes in equality law.
"There are some local authorities who interpret equalities to mean that a refuge has to provide for men, not only for women," said Mactaggart, co-chair of the women's parliamentary Labour party, a grouping of female MPs. "There are some stupidnesses developing in the system that nobody intended."
Although 15% of men say they have been physically assaulted by a partner, according to the most recent British Crime Survey, the extent to which men suffer domestic violence is disputed. Surveys have suggested that many allegations of being assaulted by women are made by men facing prosecution for domestic violence.
Nicola Harwin, chief executive of Women's Aid, said its branches were still allowed to exclude men from refuges, but were being told when council contracts came up for tender that they must provide services such as advice and outreach to men or lose their funding. Decades of progress in setting up refuges were being undermined, she said. In some cases contracts were being given to inexperienced providers who would deal with both sexes but did not follow important safeguards to prevent violent partners continuing to harass victims.
"There is one independent domestic violence advocacy service where they were dealing with both male and female victims, sometimes in the same relationship. When a man says, 'Actually she is abusing me, not me abusing her', obviously that has to be treated seriously by police, but you shouldn't have the same person dealing with them."
She said that many volunteers and staff at domestic violence charities were survivors of abuse for whom it was important that the organisation was all-female. "We are going to see a shrinking of provision. Women do appreciate being engaged in women-only organisations. When you have been disempowered and had no control of your life [through domestic violence] it's important for a lot of women to see that this is an organisation run by women for women."
Women's Aid refers male callers to groups specialising in male victims. But men's rights groups say services for them are much patchier.
Mactaggart wants ministers to resolve the problems unwittingly created by the so-called gender equality duty, which requires local authorities to ensure that services do not discriminate on grounds of sex. The Government Equalities Office said councils were being overzealous about the new duty, adding: "This cannot be an excuse [for cutting services]. This interpretation of the duty is law."