How can we improve the quality of safe housing services?

How can we improve the quality of safe housing services?​

Illustration: NGO Atina's archive / Brlje

Safe housing – and especially specialized shelters for women – are key support for victims of domestic violence. However, creating a safe housing service aligned with the standards of the Istanbul Convention and integrating best practices from decades of experience can seem like a challenge. After all, how exactly can we create a quality safe housing service for women victims of violence?

Principles based on the empowerment and human rights

According to the Council of Europe, there are six key principles that should be the basis for an empowering human-rights-based approach:

  • Respect and dignity
  • Gender sensitivity
  • Non-discrimination and inclusiveness
  • Victim-centered and human-rights-based support
  • Victims' right to self-determination
  • Confidentiality and data protection

These principles may serve to create an approach that respects victims, does not engage in victim-blaming, and considers gender-based violence a structural issue. It also prioritizes the “women helping women” approach, as it encourages women to independently lead their own lives and be capable of self-determination.

Furthermore, support should not discriminate based on the victims' “sex, gender, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, state of health, disability, marital status, migrant or refugee status, or other statuses”. It should also be taken into account that many victims are subjected to multiple discriminations, and therefore in such cases specialized support would be ideal. In short, this form of support should encompass everyone who needs it, which has implications for the infrastructure of safe housing (e.g. making it accessible to women with disabilities).

In addition, all support must be directed toward the victims and respect the principle “nothing about victims without victims”. Institutional structures can sometimes be oppressive and induce re-victimization, so it is very important that support systems do not recreate the same power inequalities that lead to gender-based violence.

All the decisions should be up to the victims – they have a right to self-determination. Specifically, this means that victims should not be pressured to leave abusers or to report them.

Finally, to ensure the relationship of trust with the victim, it is important that all services respect confidentiality and data protection, although there can be exceptions when there is an immediate threat to the life of the victim.

Standards for safe houses for women

All safe houses for women should, at a minimum, follow the listed standards:

  • All support should be free, considering the vulnerable situation of the victims and how any additional cost can be a financial burden;
  • There should be immediate access to assistance every day, at all hours (24/7). In addition, safe houses should also provide free transportation to women and children.
  • Safe houses should have sufficient capacity, i.e. beds, so that no victim can be turned away due to a lack of space. One place, at least, should always remain free.
  • Victims should be able to self-referral to safe houses, meaning they should be able to ask for support independently and not have to undergo bureaucratic procedures or be referred to the shelter by another institution;
  • Victims have the right to stay in the safe house for as long as they need, but they must also be able to leave of their own free will if they chose to do so. 
  • Victims should have access to an integral recovery from trauma in all areas of support, therefore, staff and volunteers of women’s shelters need specialized training to understand trauma-informed care. Children should have access to comprehensive support because they are also victims of domestic violence. They should be accommodated in women’s safe houses, whether they are girls or boys under the age of 18. Ideally, safe houses should have separate rooms for families with their own bathrooms.
  • All women and their children should have access to support, including women migrants, refugees or members of ethnic minorities
  • Victims who are experiencing substance abuse or mental health disorders should have access to specialized support.

Safety measures in women's safe houses

All safe houses for women above all prioritize the safety and security of the victims. Therefore, they should follow specific measures, including:

  • Secret address;
  • High-security standards and systems connected to the police, and security staff available 24/7;
  • Safety regulations for victims, visitors and staff;
  • Secured windows and living rooms facing away from the street;
  • Mandatory risk assessments and safety planning for women and their children;
  • Safety plans for staff and emergency safety plans, in cooperation with the police.

Ensuring the safety of the victim must be at the core of the work of the women’s safe houses, whether inside or outside. 

Management standards

Considering the complexity of ensuring quality safe housing, management standards are of the utmost concern and they should be in accordance with the Istanbul Convention regarding all aspects:

  • All facilities should provide dignified living conditions, including enough beds for the women and their children, rooms and areas accessible to wheelchairs, bathrooms for each family, cooking facilities and laundry in sufficient numbers to be accessible to everyone, specific rooms to study equipped with computers, recreation spaces, rooms for counselling, and rooms for staff activities (e.g. conference room). The shelters are housing a community of women and should be designed as such.
  • All residents of safe houses also have rights and responsibilities, such as following a protocol for entering and exiting the safe house, respecting confidentiality rules, and having access to clearly written information that can be easily understood. In the case of mobile phone usage, they can become a safety problem when used incorrectly (e.g. allowing abusers to see the location of the safe house), but they are also an important resource for victims. Therefore, victims should be educated on how to use smartphones in a way that does not risk their safety or that of other women and children in safe houses.
  • All victims should have a written needs assessment and also an action plan so that they can know about their rights and how to realize them.
  • There should be good governance structure and accountability, following horizontal hierarchies and encouraging the participation of residents in decision-making processes.
  • There should be enough staff to ensure the provision of all services. According to the Council of Europe, the ideal staff structure for a women’s shelter with 25-35 places could be:
    • 5 full-time staff for the 24/7 shelter services
    • 2 full-time staff for counselling and support (10-15 women per staff member)
    • 1-2 full-time staff for supporting children at the safe house
    • 1 staff member for administration
    • 1 staff member for management, networking and PR.

All staff should also have specialized training.

  • The women’s safe houses should be supervised to ensure these quality standards and there should be consistent data collection, monitoring and evaluation that follows a victim-centred approach.

The missing element - adequate funding

These standards can inform the creation of quality safe housing, but they are dependent on a critical element – adequate funding. Having a housing structure that can accommodate several families and support staff of at least 10 specialized professionals comes at a cost.

That is why the Istanbul Convention obliges States parties to invest in combating violence against women and, specifically, to finance support services run by women’s organizations which are capable of meeting these standards of support.

This article was created within the project "Better support for women and children victims of violence - improving the accessibility and capacities of safe houses in Serbia" NGO ATINA is implementing in cooperation with the United Nations Agency UN WOMEN, and with the support of the European Union, within the framework of the EU-UN Women regional program to stop violence against women in the countries of the Western Balkans and Turkey entitled "Implementing norms. Changing minds", financed by the European Union.

The content of this article is the sole responsibility of NGO ATINA, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union, UN Women, their Executive Board or the member states of the United Nations.