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Main challenges

Last edited: September 14, 2012

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  • Social norms and structures reduce women’s access to support services. Despite well-established international, regional and national commitments to women’s equality and human rights, they continue to be violated in many states and social attitudes tolerate the persistence of women’s lower status and abuse against them. In some areas, women are at greater risk of violence if they seek shelter, such as through future retaliation by the abuser, family or community members; or state prosecution, for example, where rape survivors can be charged with adultery. Women may face discrimination and stigmatization from the community for disclosing their experience of abuse, or risk losing custody of their children, in contexts where fathers are given preferential parental rights. Lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender and queer women who are abused by partners may isolate themselves in an effort to keep their relationship secret, or avoid social stigma. Marginalized women may face hostile attitudes from police, health and other service providers who condone acts of violence against them. In these and many other contexts, women tend not to seek shelter until they feel there is no other option (Alberta Council of Women's Shelters, 2009; Barrett & St. Pierre, 2011; OSCE, 2009; Kelly & Dubois, 2008; SPC, 2010).
  • Economic barriers to help-seeking. Women's unequal economic status and the financial burdens placed on those seeking shelter (e.g. related to finding new accomodation or leaving ones’ community and employment) is a significant challenge for women to escape abuse. This is particularly challenging for those in low socio-economic situations or women who are financially dependent on their abuser. Women with disabilities and older women may also be dependent on abusive caregivers and avoid seeking help due to fear of loss of basic care, affection, and financial means. Economic control and abuse by partners or caregivers may further hinder a woman from accessing support, through strategies which prevent or interfere with her education and employment; control her access to economic resources; or place overwhelming financial burdens on her, for example, through household costs, loans and debts, or forcing her to commit crime. Within this context, discrimination in the labour market increases women’s vulnerability to violence by reducing their choices regarding employment (e.g. insecure employment and low wages are among risk factors for trafficking), and can restrict women's options for reporting or leaving the abuse (Rees & Wilson, 2011; OSCE, 2009).
  • Low awareness among women and girls of their rights. Shelter efforts to raise awareness about women’s abuse, their rights, and options for leaving a violent situation may be challenged in settings where: women’s status is considered secondary to men; there is greater acceptance that violence against women is justified (by both women and men); and in settings with high illiteracy or social isolation, which limit women’s access to written advocacy or informational materials, including on services and initiatives addressing violence in their community. For example, marginalized groups of women and girls (such as migrants, indigenous groups, adolescents, those in rural areas, with disabilities, etc.) may be uncertain of their legal rights or have limited access to information on their rights due to the multiple forms of discrimination they face and the limited capacity of shelter outreach efforts to fully engage the diversity of women in the community (UN-Habitat, 2010; OSCE, 2009).
  • Limited availability and coverage of safe shelter spaces. In many areas of the world, demand for shelter services often exceeds availability and in some countries, shelter facilities may remain few (often limited to the capital city or urban areas) to none. For example, the 3rd Global Shelter Data Count in 2011 found that during a single day, 56,308 women and 39,130 children sought shelter from domestic violence in 36 countries across regions, while 12,342 women and children were turned away from services due to limited space and resources. Even in countries with shelter facilities, there are particular shortages of services in remote and rural areas, affecting women from smaller communities, including indigenous groups, who may already be isolated and marginalized from available assistance. In addition to the lack of physical facilities, survivors in rural areas are challenged by a lack of anonymity and confidentiality when attempting to seek support, or may live miles from the nearest neighbour, friend or family member and have fewer means to access to child care, job opportunities, transportation and services. This context is perpetuated by the restricted legislative and policy environment and limited government commitment to such services (e.g. funding for emergency shelter, but few resources for subsidized housing or transitional support) (Global Network of Women’s Shelters, 2011; UN Division for the Advancement of Women, 2006; Sieger, 2003).
  • Narrow scope of shelter services. Many shelters globally remain in the early stages of development. Services are most often designed for survivors of domestic violence, who may comprise the majority of women seeking shelter in many settings. In general, there are few shelters able to meet the diverse needs of specific groups of women; from physical facilities and services accessible by those living with physical and cognitive disabilities; programming tailored to the needs of girls and adolescents, older women, lesbians, migrant/refugee or undocumented women, as well as those from ethnic, indigenous or other marginalized groups. Immigrant women may have difficulty accessing help due to language differences, threats of deportation by violent partners or perpetrators, in addition to other common barriers to help-seeking. Services may not be equipped to identify women who have experienced specific forms of violence (such as trafficking); have the capacity to respond to multiple forms of violence (e.g. forced marriage alongside domestic violence); or in cases where there are multiple perpetrators. Shelters may lack recreational opportunities; may be inappropriately designed or restrict access to women with children or children of a certain age. In many communities, the systems, institutions and professionals responsible for providing services (i.e. health, legal and social services) may lack the protocols and processes to effectively identify abuse, and shelter staff may have insufficient knowledge of how to support women with particular needs. For example, a rape survivor who does not have legal status in the country may not be provided with housing support or may believe she is not eligible for legal assistance if shelter staff are not familiar with the relevant laws and able to communicate the services available to undocumented women (Asian Forum of Parliamentarians on Population and Development and UNFPA, 2003; International Organization for Migration, 2007; Multi-Agency Practice Guidelines, 2009; OSCE, 2009; Barrett & St. Pierre, 2011; WAVE, 2004a,b; Weeks & Oberin, 2004).
  • Inadequate budget support and related limitations on available services. Protection and services for women and girls escaping violence require sustainable funding, which should be allocated from dedicated state funds, as part of their due diligence obligations. Although shelters often receive funding from the state and donors, government funding has historically been inadequate and inconsistent over time. Funding from donors is often equally project-driven and disconnected from the aspirations of the groups providing services. Insufficient or lack of consistent funding for shelters exacerbates the sustainability and capacity limitations of survivor support organizations. Many shelters do not have staff with expertise on resource mobilization and fundraising; often struggling with the process of applying for and securing funding for their services. Without sufficient funding, organizations are often unable to afford or sustain human and organizational resources, technical support and other assets, such as providing ongoing crisis and transitional accommodation or facilitating women’s access to the full range of health, legal, security, psycho-social and outreach/community supports necessary to reduce their risk of future abuse. Even with promising action plans, sound communications, and qualified employees, shelters often struggle to secure adequate funding to meet the demands and respond to the needs of all women seeking their assistance. This reduces the number of women who may be assisted, lowers retention of skilled employees and volunteers, and affects the overall quality of services provided (UN-Habitat, 2010).
  • Lack of long-term support. Ensuring women and their children are able to access safe affordable housing options when leaving a shelter is a significant challenge in many settings. For example, women who are economically dependent on their partner or other family member are often faced with the options of staying in the abusive situation or becoming homeless. Lack of second-stage shelter facilities forces a significant percentage of women who have escaped domestic violence to return to their homes and violent situations. Access to affordable and safe housing for survivors is limited, and even in well-resourced communities, the availability of such housing is often insufficient to meet the demand. The maximum length of stay in emergency shelters is typically short (up to 21 days), which may not provide women enough time to determine the type of housing needed or identify and secure an appropriate space prior to leaving the shelter. State efforts to expand the availability of housing is often implemented without addressing the specific safety needs of women fleeing violence (i.e. through careful risk assessment, safety planning and housing security precautions), which further limits women’s options for stable accommodation. Further advocacy and resources continue to be needed in this area (Tutty, et. al. 2009; Radhika Coomaraswamy, 2000, as cited in COHRE, 2004).
  • Lack of rigorous and regionally-diverse shelter programme evaluations. While research on interventions is growing, the ability to demonstrate what “works” continues to be limited. Resources are needed to develop methods that can be used to understand the subtle and significant changes necessary to continuously improve shelter services and their effectiveness for women and girls. This includes the need for evaluations of shelter alternatives, such as safe home or sanctuary initiatives, which continue to emerge where a shelter facility is not feasible. States, agencies, non-governmental organizations and researchers need to collaborate on the development and refinement of indicators and measures suited to various levels of analysis. Tracking the availability of services such as shelters and other assistance for survivors is needed to accurately understand the scope and extent to which services are needed and evaluate a society’s response to the problem (United Nations Secretary General, 2006a.b).