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Women from diverse cultures

Last edited: September 14, 2012

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Women from all societies experience violence, and their responses to it are impacted by a variety of influences, including the differing values and norms of their community and culture. By understanding the fluid nature of culture, service providers can better respond to women’s unique circumstances and needs. Integrating support for women from diverse cultures may be promoted through a variety of practices which:

  • Develop culturally-relevant understanding and responses of staff and the institution by providing ongoing education and training to staff and volunteers, including on:
    • awareness of the cultural groups in the community served by the shelter;
    • understanding and respecting individual perspectives and different attitudes;
    • case-specific approaches which apply information only to the situation in which it is received (and avoid making generalizations about a woman’s experience); and
    • risk assessment and safety planning approaches which are tailored to acknowledge the specific circumstances (e.g. single vs. multiple perpetrators) and resources (e.g. specialized services or support groups) available that may affect a woman’s options and decisions in protecting herself from future violence.
  • Develop staff self-awareness of what impacts one's decisions, biases and world view, and promoting staff willingness to receive information, adapt and alter attitudes through ongoing supervision and support.
  • Work collaboratively with different communities in order to:
    • Better understand the diverse perspectives of specific cultural groups;
    • Address cultural justifications for violence; and
    • Examine generalizations perpetuated about specific groups within the community and among service providers, including within the shelter.
  • Employ specific strategies for effective cross-cultural communication:
    • Promote openness to hearing the experiences, beliefs and values of every woman.
    • Develop staff self-awareness of personal biases and foster skills to intentionally suspend generalizations in order to improve understanding of women's unique needs.
    • Use plain language, gestures, pictures, drawings and other non-verbal forms of communication where there are language barriers with a survivor.
    • Acknowledge that information will be perceived differently by people from different cultures and create dialogue to improve understanding of the woman's experience, beliefs, values and traditions.
    • Recognize the potential for miscommunication and unintentionally sending messages which are perceived as offensive; taking note and apologizing to the woman if this has happened, providing her an opportunity to respond, and then moving on.
  • Build cultural competency within the shelter by:
    • Partnering with cultural and advocacy organizations and consulting with representatives of diverse communities to incorporate culturally-relevant services into programme planning (related to language, race, customs, family structure, community dynamics).
    • Using knowledge and expertise of diverse staff and volunteers by involving them in the design and review of programmes and projects. Staffing should reflect the community’s diversity wherever possible to help inform relevant programming and reduce language barriers to services.
    • Understanding the complexities of immigration and allocating resources to address specific needs of migrant and refugee women (e.g. asylum and immigration law assistance, specialized risk assessments and case planning)
    • Considering women’s cultural identities, customs, beliefs, communication norms and family structures in designing services.
    • Developing a language-access protocol, including standardizing translation of key documents (i.e. intake forms, assessment materials, rights and responsibilities, complaints procedures and other critical documents) and providing relevant training for staff (including support for specifically-trained interpreters).
    • Completing a self-assessment of shelter cultural competency and using the results to plan for enhanced competency (Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2005; Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters, Module 9, 2009); Flinders Institute for Housing Research Urban and Regional, 2008).


New Zealand’s National Collective of Independent Women's Refuges employs staff able to communicate in various languages to meet the needs of different ethnic and migrant groups across the country. Four ethnic safe houses provide culturally appropriate services specifically for Asian, African and Middle Eastern ethnic groups, including support for Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Malay, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Burmese, Korean, Indian, Fiji Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Iranian, Iraqi and African families (Secretary-General’s Database,  Women’s Shelters).

The Swedish non-profit organization, Terrafem, runs shelters and a hotline for women victims of violence. The hotline offers assistance in 43 languages, and the organization can offer legal advice in 25 languages. Importantly, any calls placed to Terrafem are free-of-charge and will not be listed on a phone bill.


Case Study: Imkaan—Supporting Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic, and Refugee Survivors (United Kingdom)

Imkaan is a national organization in the United Kingdom which represents and assists frontline support providers for Black, Asian, minority ethnic and refugee (BMER) women and girls who have experienced various forms of violence, including domestic and sexual abuse, and forced marriage, or are at-risk of honour-based crimes. With over 13 years of experience, the organization serves as a representative of and provides support to shelters and other organizations specializing in support for BMER women and child survivors across the United Kingdom. The organization has contributed to strengthening specialist services available to these women and bringing together specialist organizations through training, research, capacity development support, and strategic advocacy. The network uses a grassroots approach to implement its work, based on the needs of service providers and the views and voices of the women and children they support.

Read the full Case Study.

Source: Marai Larasi, Director. Imkaan; Imkaan Website.



Cultural Competence Self-Assessment Questionnaire, Service Provider Version (United States Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, 2006). This questionnaire was designed to assist human service professionals to assess and identify training needs in the area of cultural competence. Based on the context in the United States, the questionnaire was developed from a strengths-based perspective, with recognition that cultural competency is a developmental process. Available in English.

Inside Out: Strengthening Advocacy and Services for Refugee, Immigrant, and Limited English Proficient Survivors: A Guide to Self-Assessment and Planning for Domestic Violence Programs (Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2005). This tool provides guidance on how to conduct a shelter self-assessment of cultural competency, including how to complete the assessment process and develop a plan to improve cultural competency in the shelter. Surveys to gather input from shelter staff and survivors are provided. Available in English.

Model Protocol on Services for Limited English Proficient Immigrant and Refugee Victims of Domestic Violence (Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2007) provides an example of a protocol used in the context of the United States. Available in English.

Toolkit for Lawyers: Best Practices in working with Battered Immigrant Women (Battered Women’s Support Services, 2010) is a practical resource for lawyers working with immigrant women leaving abusive relationships. This document may be useful in developing resources for immigrant women in shelters, such as in providing information and advocacy within the legal system and in developing a list of local resources for women in Edmonton. Available in English.

Creating Inclusive Spaces for Women: A Practical Guide for Implementing and Integrated Anti-Racist, Feminist Service Delivery System (Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses, 2005) was created to help shelters maintain welcoming, respectful, and inclusive spaces for women and their children. The how-to-manual contains practical ideas, suggestions, and specific strategies to help shelters celebrate the successes already realized, determine how your organizational structure, employment practices, and programs and services can be enhanced and develop a step-by-step realistic work plan to make the changes. Available in English.

Violence Knows No Boundaries: Diverse Cultural Perspectives, Legal Resources and Safety Information on Domestic Violence for Service Providers. (Tunstall and Damjanovic, 2008). This resource provides surveys that can be used to assist staff working with immigrant and refugee women in vulnerable situations to develop their capacity to support women from diverse cultures by reflecting on their own cultural competency (See Individual Self-Assessment Checklist for Cultural Competency, page 86).