What is a women’s safe house, and what do they do?

August 16, 2016

A Papua New Guinea counselling service for women. PNG 2008. Photo: AusAID/Flickr

Violence against women doesn’t come in one form. It may be at the hands of a stranger, but most of the time, it’s someone close by. It’s the husband. The boyfriend. The father. The brother.

People say to ‘just leave’, but it’s rarely as simple as that. If you’re financially dependent, then leaving can feel impossible. And in countries where there is still so much stigma and silence around domestic violence, reaching out to family and friends isn’t always an option.

This is where safe houses provide a haven. Individually, they’re a lifeline for women survivors. As a movement, they’re transformative, using their collective power to upend the way society deals with gender-based violence.

A women's shelter for victims of sexual abuse in Goma. Photo: Marie Frechon/UN Photo
A women’s shelter for victims of sexual abuse in Goma. Photo: Marie Frechon/UN Photo

Safe houses can be much more than crisis accommodation

Safe house. Crisis support centre. Refuge. Women’s shelter. They’re all unique, but they all have one thing in common – they’re a way for women to remove themselves from horrific situations.

When most of us imagine safe houses, we think of a physical, secure place where survivors can have basic needs taken care of and stay for a short time while they work out what to do next. But not as many of us know about the other support services in place that are designed to empower survivors of violence.

Picture: Simon Bosch
Picture: Simon Bosch

Health and wellbeing

Not all violence is visible. Many women turn to safe houses with serious physical injuries, but many women also experience less visible mental abuse. Counselling is an important part of the process. In rural areas, these services are less accessible, and many women don’t seek medical and psychological help as they can’t afford them or do not know they’re there. Safe houses can provide counselling or peer support for survivors on site, or referrals to see doctors and counsellors externally. If the process is accessible and inclusive, women are more likely to follow through, and more likely to get the care they need.

A legal office in Timor-Leste. Photo: Anna Carlile
A legal office in Timor-Leste. Photo: Anna Carlile

Legal referrals

Navigating the justice system can be difficult in any country. But in countries where women are criticised for speaking up about the abuse they experience, women are even less likely to turn to the court systems. Even when they do, patriarchal court systems built on entrenched sexism mean cases of violence are not treated with the seriousness they should be.

When laws around gender-based violence are weak or unclear, it’s even harder. Women may know that violence is wrong, but they may be unaware of their legal rights. Safe houses can connect women with police, offer women basic legal advice and assistance filing legal complaints.

Photo: Anna Carlile
Photo: Anna Carlile


Skills building

Financial dependency is a huge hurdle for women leaving abusive situations. Safe houses work with women to build their financial literacy, build their life and work skills, and to get in touch with income generating opportunities to empower them to build the financial means to start again.

Acting as an advocate for survivors

Supporting and empowering women on an individual and collective level is the central aim of a safe house. But they play a much larger role in changing poor laws, systems and social norms that contribute to one in three women experiencing violence in their lifetime.

The organisations who run safe houses for women play a major role in advocating for stronger laws, improved education around women’s rights, and a simpler way for women to seek support. This advocacy is important to work toward a long term, sustainable reduction in gender-based violence, and to improve the systems women rely on to seek justice.

These safe houses are largely run and supported by other women, both paid and voluntary, and show the power of women mobilising to support each other.