Related Tools

The history and origin of women’s sheltering

Last edited: September 14, 2012

This content is available in


Throughout history and around the world, women have supported efforts to provide safety to women and girls at risk of harm, whether through faith-based institutions or community/family supports. Particularly in the past five decades, the women’s movement has had an enormous impact on the expansion of shelters and related services.

  • 1960 – 1970: The women's movement developed in Great Britain and the United States, which engaged a growing number of women in addressing violence and other issues related to gender inequality. The first well-documented women's centre was established in Hounslow, Great Britain in 1971, which provided an unofficial refuge for domestic violence survivors. During this period, other shelters opened across countries and regions, and the first emergency rape crisis line was started in Washington, D.C., United States. Early shelter services responded to:
    • physical injuries;
    • emotional aspects of both the violence and of leaving the relationship;
    • difficulties in escaping violence and living in unfamiliar surroundings;
    • children who arrived with their mother; and
    • legal, social and medical service needs.
  • 1970 – 1980: Significant progress was made in the organization and expansion of services across Western Europe, North America and Australia, particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States.
    • The National Women's Aid Federation was established in 1974, linking groups from England, Scotland and Wales to clarify the goals for developing shelter and services for women fleeing violence.
    • Initiatives aimed to increase public awareness on these issues, and the creation of printed materials (e.g. Working on Wife Abuse, a 1976 directory of groups), provided networking tools for shelters and supported the development of coalitions across regions.
    • Intensive fundraising efforts resulted in some resources for shelters, such as the Australian government’s support for Sydney’s Elsie Refuge in 1975 (Laing, 2000).
    • Issues of race and ethnicity, among other concerns, were raised in the United States in response to the limited engagement of shelters with diverse race, class, and other groups.
  • 1980 - 2000: An expanding number of shelter facilities and services for women experiencing abuse and their children developed across regions, alongside the intensified focus on gender inequality within political and social mobilization agendas worldwide. By the turn of the century, there was growing acceptance that violence against women is a violation of human rights and an impediment to gender equality (United Nations Secretary-General, 2006b).
  • 2000 - present: Despite growing attention and commitment to supporting women and girls to escape abuse, many countries do not have adequate coverage of shelters or safe accommodation spaces. Advocacy for shelter services continues, alongside the emergence of new partnerships and networks, such as the first World Conference on Women’s Shelters organized in Alberta, Canada in 2008 and subsequent establishment of a Global Network of Women’s Shelters, involving representatives across regions. The Second World Conference of Women’s Shelters, organized in February 2012, highlighted the breadth of women’s shelters and organizations facilitating alternative accommodation.  Despite the absence of a global scan on such services, a variety of states have conducted national mappings of shelters and related services.  Illustrative examples include:

Europe: Country report 2010- Reality Check on European Services for Women and Children Survivors of violence: A Right for Protection and Support? (WAVE, 2010) and Protect - Identifying and Protecting High Risk Victims of Gender-Based Violence (WAVE, 2011).  

Latin America: Technical note: Violence against Women in Latin America (Organization of American States Mechanism to Follow Up on Implementation of the Convention- MESECVI, 2010).

Pacific Islands: Ending Violence against Women and Girls Evidence, Data and Knowledge in Pacific Island Countries (UN Women, 2011).

Southern Africa: SADC Gender Protocol Barometer (Southern Africa Gender Protocol Alliance, 2011).

Bangladesh: Survey Mapping on Gender Based Violence against Women (Ministry of Women’s and Children’s Affairs, 2009).

Canada: Shelters for Abused Women in Canada 2010 (Statistics Canada, 2010).

Italy, Belgium and Spain: The Daphne III Programme, 2007-2013 (Plessi, 2010; Dobash & Dobash, 1992; Safenetwork, 1999).

Kenya: What's Being Done About Violence Against Women And Girls: Mapping Kenya's Civil-Society Organizations (2009).

Nepal: Priority Areas for Addressing Sexual and Gender Based Violence in Nepal (UNFPA, 2007)

South Africa: Shelters Housing Women Who Have Experienced Abuse (Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre and Heinrich Böll Stiftung, 2012).

United Kingdom: Map of Gaps 2: The postcode lottery of Violence against Women support services in Britain (End Violence against Women and Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2009) Map of shelters across the United Kingdom.

United States: Domestic Violence Counts 2011. A 24-hour census of domestic violence shelters and services (NNEDV, 2012).