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Last edited: December 29, 2011

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  • Specialized units mandated to address gender-based violence or support women and other vulnerable groups are an important service delivery mechanism in the absence of systematized policies and protocols for police responding to cases of violence.

  • Specialized units may focus on specific forms of abuse or cover violence against women broadly; their mandate may include various types of support (e.g. administering urgent medical treatment, counselling survivors, etc) in addition to providing immediate safety and documenting incidents of violence for potential investigation. Various models exist for specialized units, such as the women’s police stations pioneered in Latin America; gender desks or victim support units, which may be staffed by female and/or male security personnel; and models which involve victim advocates or other professionals providing emergency services.

  • Key lessons from the experiences in Latin America (Denham 2008; Jubb et al., 2008; Jubb and Izumino, 2003; Morrison et al., 2007) and elsewhere indicate that:

    • These units need to be institutionalized and be part of system-wide approach and supported by adequate long-term investment in training and professional resources. A system-wide approach should also include the community level (e.g. providing women’s station’s with equal levels of support as other police stations and integrating the units within the overall community policing strategies and plans). 

    • A national governing body is important in the design and implementation of programmes to improve the quality of service and create standards for women’s police stations procedures and services. Some countries (e.g. Ecuador and Nicaragua) have established a national oversight body to regulate the work of the Stations, manage their operation at the national level, and create protocols to define technical standards and quality of service, and monitor and supervise protocol implementation.

    • The success of these units is interlinked with other sectors and the overall system. For example, weak judicial responses and impunity for perpetrators lead to low prosecution rates, despite increased reporting to police. At the same time, police interpretation and application of the law as well as service quality can also affect the ability of cases to be prosecuted through the judicial system.

    • There is a risk that these units can become isolated, marginalizing the role for addressing violence to specific staff/ sections, forcing women to go only to these units, and shifting responsibility for responding to gender-based violence away from all police (e.g. Brazil and Ecuador).

    • Gender units/ women’s police stations need to be supported through adequate human resources and the provision of adequate physical and communications infrastructure such as telephone hotlines, vehicles, and private spaces for interviews and (where relevant) medical examinations.

    • Specialized units are particularly challenging to implement in rural areas given limited staff and infrastructure to respond adequately to the needs of survivors. In some countries, efforts have been made to access women in rural areas using mobile stations, such as in Nicaragua (and previously in Ecuador), where the station staff and one or more specialists from other institutions and/or organizations visit outlying, including rural, communities to provide general information, register complaints, and follow-up support on reported cases.

    • Female officers also need adequate training; they are not automatically ‘good listeners’ and their presence alone does not equal better attitudes towards abused women.

    • Even where stations exist, there is evidence of continued use of mediation and conciliation processes instead of conducting investigations and rapidly directing cases towards trial – which can be addressed through guidelines, training and monitoring.

    • Coordination mechanisms both within the police and judicial system, as well as with other service providers need to be robust.


Promising Practice:
Zambia’s Victim Support Unit and the Administration of Emergency Contraception

From 2005–2008, the Zambian Ministry of Home Affairs (Police Service), Ministry of Health and Population Council collaborated in a pilot programme and study designed to improve services for survivors of gender-based violence. The study tested the feasibility of police provision of emergency contraception, which prevents unwanted pregnancy within 120 hours of unprotected sex, and aimed to demonstrate that the intervention could strengthen survivor services at both police and health facilities through an increased emphasis on multisectoral collaboration.


Under the intervention, Victim Support Unit officers in five police stations in the Copperbelt’s Ndola district were trained to deliver emergency contraception to eligible survivors of sexual violence (rape and defilement), and to refer survivors to health facilities for appropriate clinical management and forensic evidence collection. Support Unit officers were trained under the Ministry of Health’s Community-based /Employer-based Family Planning Distributor curriculum to become contraception distributors

The intensive 6-day program integrated an emphasis on emergency contraception, communication skills and sexual violence into the existing employer-based distributors training curriculum. Key topics of the curriculum were:

  • Background of population and development in Zambia

  • Introduction of the concept of employer-based distributors agents

  • Concepts and benefits of family planning

  • Male and female reproductive issues

  • Zambian family planning policies and methods

  • Prevention and management of HIV/AIDS and STIs

  • Prescribing and issuing emergency contraception; management of emergency contraception services

  • Quality of care issues in emergency contraception

  • Definition and social context of gender-based violence and sexual violence

  • Health and psychological implications of sexual violence

  • Criminal aspects and laws relating to gender-based violence

  • Rights of clients

  • Rumours and misconceptions

  • Referrals for sexual violence survivors

  • Counselling basics

  • Clarification on policies and procedures for gender-based violence survivors

  • Interpersonal communication skills, role plays

  • Developing community awareness partnerships

  • Study monitoring and recording

  • Field visits to health facilities

Key components of the training methodology included:

  • Covering issues related to police engagement with survivors, such as interpersonal communication skills. For example, Unit officers were encouraged to wear civilian clothing to and reflect on the tendency for police to interview survivors in the same way that they would interrogate suspects. Role plays were used to encourage officers to develop empathy with survivors and conduct initial interviews in a less intimidating manner.

  • Using a training of trainers approach: The officers selected for the classroom training were also given a training of trainers to ensure sustainability during the study period and beyond. Upon returning to their facilities, officers were expected to provide on-the-job training to their colleagues.

  • Involving a multi-disciplinary facilitation team, which included health workers and senior police officers. Given the hierarchical nature of police institutions, the presence of a high-ranking officer throughout the course helped to demonstrate police commitment to the initiative and to resolve any questions on the intervention’s alignment with institutional policy. The presence of experienced health professionals helped dispel misconceptions held by officers related to hospital policy, sexual violence examination procedures, post-exposure prophylaxis for HIV and STIs, and to answer questions on reproductive and sexual health.

  • Provision of supplies: each station was given a set of basic supplies for providing emergency contraception to sexual violence survivors, which included a secure, locked box for storing the contraception and the other supplies to ensure drug and record security, provider’s aids, record-keeping tools, and stocks of emergency contraception and instructions for resupply.

  • Multisectoral support: While the intervention focused primarily on strengthening police responses to sexual violence, it also recognized the need to improve health care at referral facilitates and provided training on emergency contraception and gender-based violence to 23 doctors and nurses from the 17 health facilities that were included in the formative research.

Results: Evaluations drawn from administrative data, a survey on provider knowledge, attitudes and practices, and focus group discussions, revealed that:

  • The police can safely and effectively provide emergency contraception. During the intervention, trained Unit officers provided a total of 357 doses of emergency contraception to survivors, with no reports of adverse events or incidents of misuse.

  • Reporting of sexual violence cases increased by 48 percent in participating police stations from 2006 to 2007. Police also reported that survivors no longer had to wait in line at stations once they were identified as filing a sexual violence case.

  • Trained Unit officers consistently referred survivors for other health services, including post-exposure prophylaxis, with 3 of the 5 intervention sites reporting referral rates of 95 percent or higher.

  • The programme was perceived by provincial management as successful, sustainable and cost-effective.

Based on the intervention’s outcomes, recommendations were developed to guide a national scale-up of the programme, including: incorporating police provision of emergency contraception into provincial, national policies and guidelines; integrating emergency contraception into the national training curriculum for all officers; integrating emergency contraception services into the national Victim Support Unit training curriculum and offering Ministry of Health certification; assigning dedicated health staff to support police emergency contraception providers; developing innovative approaches to overcoming transport constraints.

Extracted from: Population Council. 2009. ‘The Copperbelt model of integrated care for survivors of rape and defilement: Testing the feasibility of police provision of emergency contraceptive pills’.


Promising Practice: Bangladesh Police and Civil Society Victim Support Centres

In 2009, as part of the Police Reform Programme, the first Victim Support Centre  was established in Dhaka by the Bangladesh Police to support survivors of domestic violence, trafficking, acid burns, sexual harassment and rape. The Centre’s establishment within a police institution and staffed by trained female officers aimed to encourage survivors to report crimes to the police in a safe and secure environment, as well as gain access to professional services. As of 2010, seven more police Centres were underway.

The objectives of the Centres are:

  • To remove social and cultural barriers and enhance accessibility to report crimes against women and children; 

  • To provide timely and professional services to victims; 

  • To play an effective role in safeguarding victims and protecting their legal rights; 

  • To combine efforts of both government and non-government institutions and ensure best services for the victims; 

  • To protect the victim from repeat victimization; 

  • To frame effective policy guidelines on crime prevention and preserving crime-related information. 

Services provided:  The Centre provides a wide-range of services including emergency shelter and immediate safety, health care, legal advice and assistance, psychological support and counselling, training and capacity development opportunities and support for family and community re-integration. Its mandate is to:

  • Receive victims with honour and dignity;

  • Ensure a friendly environment to provide information to women and children;

  • Listen to the victims and find out their problems;

  • Register the complaint of the victim;

  • Provide assistance with regard to the First Information Report;

  • Inform the survivor with regard to the legal process;

  • Provide emergency medical assistance to the survivor and to take them to the medical centre in appropriate circumstances;

  • Assist in the investigation process and inform the survivor about the progress;

  • Assist the survivor, if needed, by providing information by phone;

  • Provide psychosocial counselling;

  • Handle and store the victim’s property in a respectful and secure manner, and return it as soon as possible upon request;

  • Refer to any government and non-government organizations for long term assistance (shelter, legal, physical/ mental care, integration into family etc.);

  • Provide services for victims staying up to five days.

Lessons learned 

  • Long-term commitment from donors has been critical to supporting the development of the Victim Support Centre and other achievements of the Bangladesh Police Reform Programme (2007-2012).

  • Joint partnership between UNDP’s Police Reform Programme team and the Bangladesh Police ensures considerable ownership by the Police in the programme’s implementation.

  • Greater engagement and collaboration with other ministries and civil servants (e.g. the Home Ministry) should be incorporated earlier in the programme to ensure sustainability of the initiative and allow the Police to continue with the activities implemented as part of the reform process.

SourcesBangladesh Police, Ministry of Home Affairs - Police Reform Programme; email correspondence, Saferworld London (2010); UNDP Bangladesh. 2011. “Bangladesh Police, 10 NGOs sign MoA.”



Other examples of women’s / family support units in local police stations

  • In Rwanda, police officers specially trained in handling cases of violence against women and girls have been placed in every one of the 69 police stations throughout the country, ensuring that women have decentralized access to specialized support. UNIFEM (and now UN Women) has provided some officers with essential equipment including motorcycles, desks, computers and other vehicles. Survivors alert police of incidents via a centralized national telephone hotline (3512) which then routes the call to the appropriate response unit. The desk provides girls and women with the legal framework and tools to improve their protection and access to support, with anecdotal reports suggesting a decrease in violence against women since the creation of the gender desk. As part of the initiative, Rwandan police offer regional training services on gender-based violence to other police in the region and the gender desk is being examined as a model for replicating across neighbouring countries. Challenges identified for the model include the intensive resource investment required to establish and sustain the desks, the limited human resources, poor coverage of telephone hotlines, limited coordination mechanisms and lack of interview rooms and appropriate facilities (Executive Boards, UNDP/ UNFPA, UNICEF and WFP, 2010).

  • Sierra Leone: Family Support Units established in 2001 are comprised of police who have been trained to work with victims of sexual and domestic violence, as well as crimes against and by children. The unit provides the initial response to incidents of violence, including referrals to free legal assistance and medical care, as well as follow-up to cases for prosecution and support to survivors; organizes community outreach campaigns on the implications of gender-based violence and to raise awareness about the need to press charges against perpetrators. A Memorandum of Understanding between the Sierra Leone Police and the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children's Affairs (responsible for referrals for, or direct provision of, psychosocial care and legal advice mandates) promotes the presence of a Ministry social worker within the Family Support Units. In 2010, there were 41 Family Support Units across the country. The Units have seen an increase in arrests and have been regarded as a relatively successful effort to address gender-based violence. Sierra Leone’s Justice Sector Survey 2008 states that ‘sexual crimes reported have decreased from 2005-7, demonstrating that (the Units) are having an impact nationwide’ (Sierra Leonean Police & Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children's Affairs, 2008;  Barnes, 2007; Campaign for Good Governance, 2004; UNICEF, 2005; Bastick, M., Grimm, K. and Kunz, R., 2006; UN Secretary General’s Database, 2010). 

  • In Afghanistan, UNFPA is supporting the establishment of Family Response Units in the National Police. These Units are largely staffed by female Afghan police, who receive training to enable them to react to violence against women, family violence, children in trouble, and kidnappings, and to provide support to female victims of crime, (UNFPA, 2006). The Units are discrete sections of the police with separate entrances for women and an emergency cellular phone number that women and girls can contact. There are 22 Family Response Units with civilian police advisors attached to police stations in 7 provinces (Kabul, Balkh, Herat, Konduz, Jawzjan, Takhar, and Bamiyan). The Units are a venue for women, children and families to report violent incidents and family disputes to law enforcement authorities.

Additional country examples can be found through the Secretary-General’s Database on Violence against Women and Girls.