Related Tools

Domestic and sexual violence

Last edited: September 14, 2012

This content is available in


The most common shelter services provided to survivors of domestic violence include:

  • Ensuring the specific security needs of women and their children as identified upon their arrival through a detailed risk assessment and safety plan.
  • Providing accommodation and programming for children accompanying their mothers, regardless of their age and gender. This may also involve the provision of private accommodation and other shelter options if there are challenges in housing older or male children at the facility. See services for women with children.
  • Collaborating with law enforcement and judicial officials to ensure women have access to orders of protection, supervised visitation programmes, among other legal measures to physically protect them and their children.
  • Assisting women with employment opportunities, as well as financial and longer-term housing supports, where needed.
  • Supporting women in their decisions regarding the support they choose to seek, in line with the principles of survivor-centred and empowering approaches.

Case Study: Oranje Huis (the Netherlands) 

Blijf Groep, a Dutch women’s shelter in Noord-Holland and Flevoland (the Netherlands) has been working on domestic violence for nearly 40 years and offers varying services. Blijf Groep has two temporary shelters for women in crisis, which are linked to 5 shelters where they can stay for up to 9 months. In 1998 the group developed Domestic Violence Support Centres in several cities, to provide non-residential services for survivors. Both women and men can come to these support centres for individual help or for counselling with their partners, as well as for information and advice. Through these support centres, social workers first came into direct contact with the perpetrators, primarily the husband or boyfriend of the woman seeking help. Challenges identified over the years related to how to find more effective ways of addressing domestic violence, prevent repeated cycles of violence and engage women sooner to minimize the long-term consequences of the abuse, recognizing that the same women were coming to the shelters over and over again.

The Oranje Huis (Orange House) pilot was developed from 2008 to mid-2011, in cooperation with the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, with a main purpose to develop a new approach in women’s sheltering. This followed a study in 2006 that showed improvements could be made in response to women and men who wanted to end the violence but not necessarily the relationship. The initiative has demonstrated positive results and was designed based on the experience of the shelters, and insights learned through engagement with both victims and perpetrators, which was confirmed by research, academic knowledge, and international experiences in domestic violence; a survey conducted in Dutch women’s shelters, and literature on child abuse, intergenerational transmission of violence, parenthood and parenting.

The Oranje Huis uses a new approach in which the shelter is visible in a disclosed location. The building is labelled “Oranje Huis”, information is included in the telephone book, there is active promotion of shelter services, and the media as well as many guests have been invited to the shelter. There is a Domestic Violence Support Centre on site to provide services collectively under one roof in order to improve support for domestic violence survivors. Research has shown that women who enter a shelter have experienced domestic violence for an average of nine years. The Oranje Huis model aims to be convenient for individuals coming from different locations, to increase its accessibility and help reduce the downward spiral of domestic violence sooner. Every client gets a tailored programme, which is supported through the model’s five main features: 1) an open setting; 2) all services under the same roof; 3) a new approach to safety (including specific attention on children); 4) family programs involving perpetrators (and specifically addressing parenting issues); and 5) separation of accommodation from help and advice.


  • Women report feeling secure in the House even though it is not a concealed location.
  • Among those staying in a traditional shelter, about 40% of women return to their partner, while only 19% of Oranje Huis residents return to their partner.
  • Anecdotal reports suggest that the Family Programs may help women to be realistic in their expectations. The perpetrator is directly involved in making the family plan, which confronts the woman with the positive and negative sides of her relationship and seems to highlight the realistic possibilities for change.
  • The Family approach leads more directly to a break in the pattern of domestic violence. All women leave the shelter with a safety plan for her and her children.

Read the full Case Study.

Source: Margje de Jong for Blijf Groep.

Sexual violence

Although there are few dedicated shelters for survivors of sexual violence, women and girls may require shelter support in various circumstances. For example, this may include: settings where their physical security cannot be guaranteed or they face continued risk of exposure to the perpetrator; when they have experienced rejection by their families or community (e.g. especially relevant for young women and girls); if the trauma suffered from the experience has reduced their ability to maintain their home, employment, or live independently; and where they need support beyond what is available at home to pursue justice or recover from their experience.

Survivors who are homeless may also seek accommodation in shelters, and who may be at increased risk of sexual violence due to factors such as: participation in high-risk behaviours to survive; fear of authority figures and reporting; insecurity of sleeping spaces (homeless shelters, streets, etc.); and institutional barriers related to accessing services (e.g. limited shelter capacity or lack of services for sexual assault survivors) (Victim Rights Law Center, Presentation for Second World Conference of Women’s Shelters, 2012).

In addition to the general protection and supports frequently provided in domestic violence shelters, specific services which should be provided alongside accommodation for women who have experienced sexual assault or rape include:

  • Appropriate and timely health services (e.g. forensic exams, post-exposure prophylaxis, etc.).
  • Counseling services tailored to sexual assault survivors.
  • Information and support to access legal assistance, protection and other psychosocial services (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, 2011).



Medica Zenica is a non-governmental women's organization founded in Bosnia in 1993 to address the effects of systemic rape against Bosnian women during the war. The primary goal of the organization is to provide shelter, psychosocial support and therapeutic counselling to survivors of rape and trauma. The model of service comprises:

  • Providing holistic support for women and girls through:
    • Primary medical care;
    • Medical outreach to remote areas of the country;
    • Shelter;
    • Psychological therapy and counselling;
    • Legal assistance;
    • Emergency telephone hotline support;
    • Professional training and vocational services;
  • Tracking the existence of varied forms of violence against women (i.e. domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking and sexual harassment), and analyzing needs for appropriate services;
  • Participating in community-based programming on prevention and prosecution of violence, including creation of a local network of services for survivors, and developing case management protocols across sectors;
  • Providing educational programmes for professionals including law enforcement and criminal justice professionals, and training in non-violent conflict transformation and reconciliation; and
  • Research and advocacy to promote women's right to live free from violence and to develop policies protecting the rights of women survivors of conflict-related rape (OSCE Secretariat, 2009).

Source: Medica Zenica website. Safe House


Case Study: Asociación Calidad de Vida, Casa Nova: Managing cases of incest and sexual abuse (Honduras)

The Asociación Caldidad de Vida in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, through its shelter for survivors of violence (Casa Nova), has developed a comprehensive care programme to manage cases of incest and sexual abuse against girls under the age of 16. The shelter supports an average of 400 girls and boys and 120 women annually. The intervention involves physical, mental, educational, moral and spiritual components to improve the girls' quality of life, helping them to develop life skills in a variety of areas, take ownership of, understand and learn to live with their experiences. The methodology also works to improve and restore family relations (with the mother) and create safe spaces for the girls.

The initiative has developed in response to the complex physical and emotional circumstances affecting girl survivors of incest and sexual abuse, who are often pregnant and have mental health conditions, such as signs of low self-esteem, lack of empathy and depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, aggression, behavioural problems, difficulties in adapting and learning, nightmares, anxiety, and rejection of their mothers. Given this context, the shelter provides psychological, medical, social and spiritual care for the girls, covering human development; conflict resolution and anger management; fear and forgiveness; recreation and occupational therapy. Educational and legal assistance is also included, and all girls must be accompanied by their mothers or an adult caretaker, given their status as minors.

The multidimensional programme methodology has contributed to the following outcomes, as demonstrated by specific results from a sample of 25 cases supported by the shelter:

  • Reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities. In 88% of cases, the survivor reported the crime when there was full legal support they received.
  • Support from the mothers. Around 76% of girls received the support of their mothers following comprehensive work with both.
  • Dispelling myths and beliefs about the violence, including the girl’s sense of guilt. All of the girls and mothers demonstrated a shift from myths and false beliefs about the sexual abuse, incest and violence which they had experienced.
  • Emotional stability through cultural, educational and therapeutic activities, with full participation of girls when activities are based at the shelter.
  • Acceptance of the pregnancy, given lack of legal abortion options, despite their young age (around 80%), particularly for girls accessing services earlier in the pregnancy.
  • Stronger mother-daughter relationships, with 72% of the cases successfully reuniting mothers with their daughters.
  • Achievement of age-appropriate development outcomes. The support provided by mothers enables girls to engage in and experience age-appropriate activities (e.g. attending school, socializing with peers, etc.). This has also included the adoption of the baby by the mother in some cases.
  • Reintegration into the education system. After leaving the shelter with their babies, 60% of the girls have continued with their studies.

A case example highlights the process of recovery supported by Casa Nova. Mirna (name changed to protect identity), a twelve-year old, was referred to the shelter by a nun, because she needed special care and treatment which was different than she was receiving in the public hospital. As a result of sexual abuse by her step-father, she became pregnant, was severely malnourished and anaemic, and suffered blame, rejection and discrimination from her community, including expulsion from school. Although she arrived without her mother, the Office of the First Lady paid for her care so she could receive support.

The shelter first focused on stabilizing her health and providing psychological and social first aid, which included accompanying her to the hospital on a daily basis; assisting her to receive three blood transfusions by identifying an appropriate blood donor; and providing a special diet to improve her nutritional status. A specific plan was established for her in partnership with the Honduran Institute for Childhood and the Family (Instituto Hondureño para la Niñez y la Familia) the State Office for Childhood (Fiscalía de la Niñez), social workers and doctors, and the nun who had referred her.

Once her health began to improve, the staff began the therapeutic work, involving coordination among a team of female psychologists, social workers, doctors and teachers. With preparation and support over time, the shelter was able to connect the girl with her mother who had also experienced domestic violence. When her mother and two sisters left the abusive step-father, they came to live in the Casa Nova, with the process focused on providing emotional support to the family, given the anger the girl felt toward her mother. 

Since her stay at the shelter, Mirna (now 19) has continued with her education and will graduate from secondary school, with hopes to become a nurse. Her mother adopted the baby and she has been able to participate in regular social adolescent activities.

A standard series of steps is followed in cases such as Mirna’s, which involves:

  1. Immediate attention or first aid: physical, psychological and social
  2. Treatment for malnutrition
  3. Crises intervention
  4. Sex education, especially for girls’ to understand their bodies
  5. Dispelling the myths about the body (e.g. sexual abuse and incest are the girls’ fault)
  6. Spiritual care and support
  7. Conflict resolution skills to manage feelings of guilt, anger, loneliness, anxiety, fear and resentment (e.g. using breathing techniques and meditation)
  8. Occupational therapy
  9. Therapeutic and recreational outings
  10. Psychological therapy, including individual and family therapy, counselling for sexual abuse and ongoing crisis intervention, as needed
  11. Support and discussion groups
  12. Activities to channel feelings
  13. Pregnancy-related support and preparation for becoming a parent

This process aims to develop skills which the girls can use to manage their situation during their time in the shelter and when they return to their communities. 

Lessons Learned

  • Acquiring support from mothers is critical in managing cases of sexual abuse and incest. Mothers must be aware of their daughter’s experience and engaged to empower her on the issue and provide support to her. As the girls will often feel anger towards their mothers, the process should also focus on forgiveness between the two, which is critical for reuniting them and creating a life plan involving the two of them.
  • It is important that the mother and daughter live together, where possible, rather than isolating the girl on the pretext that she has to get away from her abuser if he has not been arrested or if the legal proceedings have been dropped.
  • Shelters should be flexible about the time required for the girls' treatment. Although Casa Nova regulations state that women can stay for a maximum of three months, girls often need more time to recover and have been allowed to stay for as long as needed to go through the process of reuniting with their mothers. All girls have stayed at the shelter until they have had their babies, with average stays of six months.
  • In cases where it is not possible to reunite mother and daughter, the shelter should assist in the process of finding an appropriate home or centre supporting adolescent mothers.
  • Comprehensive programming involving a multidisciplinary team is valuable for supporting a holistic recovery from the abuse. This should involve inter-institutional coordination to fill the gaps between shelter services and other institutions providing services for girls.
  • Health care personnel engaged in the initiative must be well-informed, qualified and dedicated to ensure girls receive appropriate and sensitive care, and are not re-traumatized by them. This includes coordination with public hospitals to ensure the girls are provided age-appropriate support and services during the labour and delivery process (e.g. such as having a caesarean if her body is not capable of delivering naturally).
  • Psychological support should be provided over a long-term period, where possible, recognizing the lasting effects and time required for girls to recover from the abuse.

Sources: Ana Lisseth Cruz, Executive Director of Casa Nova and Anna-Maria Neppel, Canadian Network of Women’s Shelters and Transition Houses. 2011; and Associación Calidad de Vida website.