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Ensure relevant laws are in place

Last edited: September 14, 2012

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National and sub-national legislation related to shelters and related services should be aligned with international and regional commitments, and ensure the provision of minimum, relevant and confidential services in shelters by well-trained, female staff.

Legislative provisions may be included in civil (e.g. restraining and protection orders), criminal (e.g. police duties), administrative codes and/or embedded in a range of other statutes. For example, these may include:

  • Establishing the legal basis: incorporating as a non-governmental organization; recognition as a service provider, fundraising, etc.
  • Family law: custody, divorce proceedings, distribution of property, father’s visitation rights, etc.
  • Social housing: subsidized housing for survivors of violence, removing abuser from the family home, allowing survivors to stay in the family home.
  • Health (including mental health) and safety legislation: security, storage of materials on site, working alone, washrooms, quality standards, hazards, fire prevention, violence and crime in the community/neighbourhood, disaster preparation, etc.
  • Immigration and refugees: stays on deportation, waivers of residency requirements in cases of abuse, asylum law, etc.
  • Land use and building regulations: siting and zoning, building shelters, occupancy levels, operating licenses, etc.
  • Liability: insurance for and protection of volunteers, protection from lawsuits and perpetrators, grievance policies for staff, survivors and community, etc.
  • Taxation: accounting, paying taxes, record-keeping, etc.
  • Social welfare: food and employment assistance.

Legislation that supports shelters should:

  • Guarantee that there is universal access to at least one free national 24-hour hotline to report abuse and life-threatening situations that is staffed by trained counsellors who can refer callers to other services, including shelter, counselling, advocacy, legal aid, rape crisis, law enforcement and medical.
  • Shelter and related services should be well distributed and accessible across the population, ensuring that all women, even those living in rural, isolated or remote areas have access to a safe space. (UN Handbook, 3.6.1; Shelters and Safehouses, StopVAW, the Advocates for Human Rights; Kelly & Dubois, 2008).

Illustrative Examples of Legislation:

  • Norway’s Crisis Centre Act, 2010 is dedicated shelter legislation which places responsibilities on municipalities to provide a crisis centre service for use by persons who have experienced domestic violence. Section 2 of the Act states the requirements for crisis centre services:
    • Free, year-round, 24-hour, safe, temporary accommodation
    • Free daytime services
    • A year-round, 24-hour telephone help line to obtain advice and guidance
    • Follow-up during the re-establishment stage
    • Individuals may contact the centre without a referral or appointment
    • Accommodation for women and men shall be physically separate
    • High-quality service, including qualified employees, will be ensured
    • Services will be adapted to individual needs, including those of children
    • Crisis centres have a duty of confidentiality
  • Austria enacted a federal law on the Protection against Violence Act in 1997 (German), which called for government cooperation with and support of women’s shelters. As of 2008, there were 29 women’s shelters offering 750 spaces for a population of 8 million, a rate of one shelter per 800 residents (Rösslhumer, 2008).
  • In Colombia, the Ministry of Justice Decree 4799 requires safe homes and shelters to minimally provide a dignified and reparative environment; keep families together that that wish to remain so; and ensure security of the survivor and her family, while keeping them at a distance from the aggressor.
  • Denmark’s 2004 Amendment to the Act of Social Service calls for every municipality to provide temporary accommodation for women and their children fleeing violence, who have been threatened with violence or who have experienced a family crisis. However, the law does not ensure that accommodation is free of charge, and allows each municipality to determine the fee for the shelter based on services provided and women’s individual circumstances. Denmark’s Act of Social Service, 2008 established special advisors to help women find long-term housing, education and employment; also supported by its Consolidation Act on Social Services).
  • In Turkey, Section 14 of the 2004 Municipalities Act (Law No. 5272) requires major cities and towns with populations over 50,000 to provide shelters for women and children fleeing violence, based on a set of shelter service guidelines for local authorities developed by the Directorate General for the Status of Women (Secretariat of the Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men).
  • In Zambia, the Anti-Gender-Based Violence Act (Act. No. 1 of 2011, Article 24) mandates the Minister of Social Welfare to establish and operate shelters for victims from money appropriated by parliament for that purpose; and ensure an appropriate spread of such shelters throughout Zambia.
  • Include provisions for sufficient shelter spaces providing safe, emergency accommodation, 24-hour service, qualified counseling and assistance in finding long-term accommodation and housing options for both women and their children in accessible urban and rural locations. These services should keep the safety of women and children paramount. Where possible, women should never be refused services (especially if it relates to her financial situation), and in those cases, shelters should assist women in finding suitable alternatives (Advocating for new laws or the reforming of existing laws).
  • A 2007 Decree in France ensured that, in petitions for divorce or separation associated with domestic violence, only the revenue of the spouse or civil partner declared in the petition should be taken into account in application for government-provided housing.
  • The Housing Act in Slovenia makes victims of domestic violence eligible for publicly funded or non-profit rented housing.
  • Viet Nam’s 2007 Law on Domestic Violence Prevention and Control (Article 30) covers confidential “reliable addresses in the community”, defined as prestigious individuals and organizations that are capable volunteers ready to help domestic violence victims in the community. It further describes their role, which “depending on their actual situation and capacity, shall admit violence victims and provide them with assistance, advice and temporary domicile and keep the relevant authorities informed.” It also notes local responsibilities in support of establishing and maintaining such measures, “The commune/ward/township Committee of Fatherland Front and its members shall be obliged to work with the People’s Committee at the same level, to carry out communication/advocacy and establish reliable addresses in the community.”
  • Include measures to ensure sufficient funding is allocated toward the provision of shelter services, which reflects a recent and significant shift in state support for domestic violence services. Rather than making long-term funding commitments to shelters, most states include funding for the prevention of and protection from violence in their annual budgets. Some states set a certain amount for women’s shelters, but few states make multi-year funding commitments to women’s shelters (See also the section on Funding).
  • Greece’s Code on Municipalities and Communities (2006) in conjunction with the National Strategic Plan for Development allocates government funds to local municipalities to create shelters and develop related services to protect women from domestic violence.
  • Authorize state funds to appropriate service providers, preferably non-profit, independent non-governmental organizations devoted to women’s issues to create and maintain shelters. These funds should be based on long-term or unlimited contracts that are operation-based, rather than project-based to ensure shelters have the financial security to provide ongoing support to women and girls experiencing violence. All shelter services should be covered by the state, including advocacy work, recognizing the professional independence of shelters and shelter workers. Shelters should only be expected to minimally contribute to their budget through fundraising (WAVE, 2004; see also: Funding).
The United States’ Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, 1984 provides dedicated funding for domestic violence shelters and services. Updates to the Act in 2010 set aside $175 million to shelter services until 2015 through grants, mostly to state governments who then provide sub-grants to local service providers. The Violence Against Women Act and its reauthorizations, in Title VI – Housing Opportunities and Safety for Battered Women and Children, Section 602, allocates funds for items including women’s shelters, although the amount of funding changes annually. For example, in 2010, $130 million was allocated to the Battered Women’s Shelters which provides annual funding to non-governmental organizations under the Department of Health and Human Services. The funding is allocated through competitive grant programs targeting specific objectives, including transitional housing, court training and improvements, legal assistance for victims, culturally and linguistically specific services, rural programs, university campus safety, engaging men and youth, sexual assault services, etc. (Office on Violence Against Women, Grant Programs; Laney, 2010; McLaughlin, 2010).
Ukraine’s law “On the Prevention of Domestic Violence” (2002) outlines the definition of domestic violence, calls for its prevention and supports crisis monitoring centres to “accommodate family members who can fall or have fallen victim to domestic violation” (Article 8). The law specifies requirements for recognition of crisis centres. They may be created by local state administrations upon submission of a specially empowered executive body on prevention of domestic violence in accordance with the social needs of a region. Crisis centres can also be created by local self-government organs, enterprises, establishments, organizations, charity funds, citizen associations and individuals upon approval of a specially empowered executive body on prevention of domestic violence and should be registered according to procedure prescribed by law. It also notes that crisis centres are non-for-profit organizations, enjoy rights of a legal entity, own headed note-papers and a seal with the image of National Emblem of Ukraine and their title (Law of Ukraine “On the Prevention of Domestic Violence”, 2001; Revisions, 2009).
  • Mandate provision of shelter services by female staff and ensure they are open to all women victims of violence. Additional service components could be advocacy work, crisis phone lines, employment support, referrals, safety planning, self-defence, services for children and tailored services for marginalised women and women with special needs (Kelly & Dubois, 2008).
Nepal’s Human Trafficking and Transportation (Control) Act, 2064 (2007) calls for the establishment by the government of “rehabilitation centers for physical and mental treatment, social rehabilitation and family reconciliation of the victim” as well as support for organizations seeking permission “to establish and run rehabilitation center(s)”. The centers, funded by government and at times, managed by non-governmental organizations, provide immediate basic services to survivors and support efforts to reintegrate them with their families, where possible. Survivors remaining in the centers are provided employment-based vocational training (6 months), counseling and medical treatment, a small support (money) to start their own business in their respective areas.
  • State that the victim‘s consent is required before being transported to a shelter.
Moldova’s Law on Preventing and Combating Violence in the Family (2007) states that victims may be placed in emergency shelters upon the victim‘s request, and if the victim is a minor, with the consent of the minor‘s legal representative (Article 14) (Rights of Complainants).
  • Establish explicit measures to ensure the needs of diverse groups of women will be served. While many countries include provision for shelter in their laws, particularly in laws related to domestic violence, shelters for survivors of trafficking, female genital mutilation, forced/child marriage, dowry violence, so-called “honour” crimes, etc., should also be included as part of national legislation and actions plans on these topics (Advocates for Human Rights, Shelter; UN Good Practices in Legislation on "Harmful Practices" Against Women, 2009; UN Economic and Social Council, 1996).
  • Where feasible, specify integrated services in one location, such as a “one-stop crisis centre” (UN Secretary General, 2006b). In most cases, shelters may facilitate access to health, counseling, legal and other services provided by multiple organizations in one location to improve access to services, accelerate service delivery and best meet the needs of survivors.

For example, Article II of Spain’s Act on Integrated Protection Measures against Gender Violence, 2004 outlines guiding principles to improve the provision of information, care and support to survivors, and calls for the establishment of a system to effectively coordinate existing services at regional and municipal levels. The legislation entitles survivors the right to receive care, support and refuge through integrated recovery services. This must involve 24-hour service and urgent and specialized care, including:

  • Information to victims
  • Psychological assistance
  • Social assistance
  • Monitoring of women’s rights claims
  • Educational support to the family unit
  • Preventive training in the values of equality conducive to their personal development and skills in non-violent conflict resolution
  • Employment support and training
  • Mandate coordination among shelters and other service providers, to ensure women and girls have access to the range of accommodation, protection, health and socio-economic supports necessary to overcome experiences with violence (Advocates for Human Rights, Goals and Strategies of Interventions).
  • Include provisions that ensure women and girls’ confidentially and safety, for example through undisclosed addresses. Monitor and outline the conditions under which shelter users’ personal data can or must be shared with other service providers, representatives of the justice system, including police or any other parties (i.e. child welfare officials in cases of suspected child abuse). Women’s shelters have long operated under the general principle that, in order to preserve a woman’s rights, integrity and safety, the woman should decide what personal information can be disclosed to others. In addition, services should never be refused to women who decide not to disclose personal information. Exceptions to confidentiality rules are made when the safety of the woman or her children is at stake, for instance, when they are in acute danger from the violent partner or when child abuse is suspected (WAVE, 2004; Rösslhumer, 2007). 

Examples of confidentiality provisions include:

  • Article 20, Confidentiality of the Information Containing Domestic Violence Issues of the Kyrgyz Republic’s Law on Social-Legal Protection Against Domestic Violence, states that the law protects all received information regarding health, living conditions and other private or intimate affairs received while providing social-legal assistance to the domestic violence victim; confidential information may be released only with the victim’s consent regardless of the procedure (court or administrative); and persons receiving confidential information during the course of their employment about a family or family members who suffered from domestic violence must keep it confidential, unless the law provides otherwise.
  • In Norway, Section 5 of the Crisis Centre Act, 2010 states that “all persons who perform a service or work under this Act have a duty of confidentiality…The duty of confidentiality also applies to the place of birth, date of birth, national identity number, nationality, civil status, occupation, place of residence, place of employment and any other information that may reveal that a person has been in contact with the service. Information may only be disclosed to other public administrative agencies…when this is necessary to facilitate the functions of the municipality under this Actor to prevent material danger to life or serious harm to person’s health.”
  • In the United States, 2005 updates to the Violence Against Women Act and Family Violence Prevention and Services Act provided more protections for victim information, particularly in public records and databases in an effort to uphold the privacy of survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. Section 3 of the legislation states that identifying information cannot be shared without written and informed consent, including in data collection databases (National Network to End Domestic Violence, 2005).
  • Include employment guidelines for staffing, related to: the number, their qualifications, payment, working conditions, scheduling, training, use of professionals (i.e. psychologists, social workers and health care professionals) and supervision. Women’s shelters have historically been run by women as a collective organization, often working in a volunteer capacity to support their peers. As a result, the professionalization of staff in women’s shelters is a contentious topic in many areas. Support for requirements that shelter staff have qualifications include: (i) staff who are guided by professional ethics are more likely to maintain boundaries and less likely to engage in inappropriate interventions with clients. This benefits the woman, the shelter and its funders, who wish to avoid negative public attention; and (ii) professionals are better able to address the increasingly complex and acute needs of women seeking support in shelters (Delaney, 2007).
  • In 2006, through Regulatory Decree 1/2006, Portugal enacted comprehensive regulations to establish minimum conditions and operational standards for women’s shelters as part of its legal framework on violence against women.  The Decree states in Article 13(1) that “the work of the shelters shall be done by a multidisciplinary team of experts of a size appropriate to the number of occupants, consisting of people preferably with qualifications in a) psychology, b) social services, c) law, d) social education.” Article 16 outlines the responsibilities of this expert team: “a) Taking in and accompanying occupants in accordance with their rights and duties, b) Diagnosing occupants’ situation, c) Drafting an individual intervention plan in cooperation with the occupant, d) Periodically assessing the individual intervention plan and making any necessary adjustments”.
  • Make recommendations for how shelters collect data and maintain databases about the services offered and characteristics of clients served, including number of residents served, length of stay, number of stays, age of resident, number of children and their ages, relationship to perpetrator, type and duration of abuse and reasons for leaving the shelter.
  • In Canada, provincial associations are encouraged to have the shelters under their jurisdiction use the Homeless Individuals and Families Information System, developed by the federal government as a part of their Homelessness Partnering Strategy to collect service provision data; though some shelters choose to engage in their own data collection practices and maintain their own databases (HRSDC, 2006).

(adapted from Advocates for Human Rights, Legislation Module, Implementation of Laws: Shelter, 2010; United Nations Handbook for Legislation on Violence Against Women, 2009, WAVE’s Away from Violence: Guidelines for Setting Up and Running a Women's Refuge, 2004 and WAVE’s More Than a Roof Over Your Head, 2002)



Handbook for legislation on violence against women (United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, 2010.) This handbook outlines a model framework for developing national legislation on violence against women and includes a section on housing rights and the provision of comprehensive and integrated support for survivors of violence. Available in English.

Handbook for national action plans on violence against women (UN Women, 2011). This handbook outlines a model framework for developing a national action on violence against women, with a section on how action plans should cover response systems to violence against women, including safe accommodation for women and girls who experience violence. Available in English.

See the Secretary-General’s Database on Violence against Women for examples of legislation related to shelters and shelter services (filter for ‘shelter’ under keywords).

See the full Legislation Module.