The government has been accused of putting women’s lives at risk by failing to give money raised from its Tampon Tax Fund to specialist organisations dedicated to supporting them.

The Women’s Resource Centre (WRC), the leading national umbrella organisation for the women’s sector in the UK, hit out at the government for performing a U-turn on its original promise.

After activists led a campaign against the 5 per cent VAT on tampons and sanitary towels in 2015, George Osborne, the former chancellor, pledged to use the money raised “to fund women’s health and support charities”.

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But out of the 10 charities chosen to benefit from the £15m fund last year, only two were specialist women’s organisations and only one chosen this year.

In an open letter to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport at the beginning of last month, more than 100 women, including academics and representatives of women’s charities, called for the government to ringfence money raised from the VAT to be donated to organisations dedicated to women.

Vivienne Hayes, chief executive of WRC, who spearheaded the letter, said she had finally received a reply from the government last week but was “really disappointed” with its “non-answer” response.

She said: “It does not answer any of the questions we raised and it completely ignores our request for a meeting, which is very disappointing, and also just plain rude. It treats us like we are unimportant and we do not matter. It feels like a brush off.

“Not ringfencing the tampon tax for women’s health and support charities, as promised, compounds the fragility of the sector which is heavily under-resourced and it risks vital life-saving resources for women and children. We expect governments to keep to their word. Women’s organisations are up in arms about this. It is symptomatic of continuing institutional discrimination against women in government policymaking.

“We know from decades of research that women want services provided by specialist women’s charities. It is what survivors say they want over and over again. We know some women will not access services at all as they only go to local specialist services where they feel safe and understood. The government is not in touch with the needs of women at the sharp end of discrimination. We know that generic charities have a variable understanding of women’s specific needs.”

Ms Hayes, who has worked in the women’s sector for over 30 years, said she had been contacted by one of the charities who had been selected for the funding to get her advice.

“They wanted to know what projects might be beneficial for women,” she said. “We are often asked to support mainstream charities understanding of the specific needs of women but often in unpaid roles. We give advice for free. We are not recompensed for the work we do.

“Women’s sectors have been at the forefront of campaigning for change and improvements for women. If we do not address the deficit in funding we have, then women’s and girls’ rights are just going to go backwards. If they really care about equality, then they need to put their money where their mouth is. It makes very little sense not to make investments wisely during a time of austerity.”

The campaigner drew attention to research carried out by the House of Commons which found women are bearing 86 per cent of the burden of austerity as evidence of why women are in such dire need of support. She argued the gender pay gap and the fact women are “overwhelmingly providing unpaid care” was contributing to this need for help.

Ms Hayes said it made “no sense” for the government not to invest directly in the women’s sector given its specialist knowledge base – adding that proper investment in women benefits both children and communities and has a knock on effect of creating a “healthier society”.

Ms Hayes said she felt like the government had put “very little thought” into how money is spent – explaining it had told her the organisations it had selected would be able to give money to smaller charities.

“But all of those organisations will be taking money from that to operate. If you are going to use a middleman, why not use a middlewoman and go with women’s charities,” she added.

The campaigner said the WRC would be launching a crowdfunding campaign in the next few weeks to raise money to carry on campaigning on this issue.

In its initial open letter, its raised concerns that even when women’s charities have ”led bids, or applied in consortia-type arrangements”, it has been larger generic organisations that have been granted the funding.

The only women’s charity to receive tampon tax cash this year was Southall Black Sisters. However, its director, Pragna Patel, added her name to the open letter. The majority of funding has gone to organisations that are not wholly dedicated to women but are running specific projects aimed at their welfare – with beneficiaries including Mind and Crisis UK.

Controversy was stoked in 2017 when the government awarded £250,000 raised from the tampon tax to the anti-abortion organisation Life.

A spokesperson for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said: “Every project that receives Tampon Tax Funding must benefit women and girls. Funding is allocated to reach projects across the UK. This year alone, £7.5m has been awarded to organisations that will benefit small and medium charities, including those supporting vulnerable women and projects addressing violence against women and girls.”

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