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Safe homes

Last edited: September 14, 2012

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In many communities, most often remote and rural areas, women and girls fleeing violence do not have access to a formal shelter facility. This may be due to the lack of shelters in their community or country or logistical barriers that prevent them from going to available shelters (e.g. distance from their home, lack of transportation or resources to access the shelter, etc.).

In this model, community members may informally or publically offer to share their home on a temporary basis with women fleeing violence. While these homes may not guarantee a woman’s safety, they are an important option for women in need of an immediate safe space away from the threat of violence. 

Safe Homes have been developed for several purposes, including to:

  • Provide emergency protection in communities where formalized shelters and services do not yet exist.
  • Create an opportunity for women to make arrangements to travel to the nearest available women’s shelter. In these cases, safe homes may be provided on a short-term basis (e.g. up to 7 days). In some communities, a coordinator is in place and provides outreach services to support the safe home activities.
  • Increase accessibility of protection and assistance for women who have been shown to underutilize shelter services and who may benefit from a quieter environment, such as older women (Hightower & Smith, 2006).

As part of this approach, it is essential, where possible, to create a link with an existing shelter facility in order to provide women and girls access to the wider range of support services, and enable survivors to liaise with a professional specialized on the issue (Smith & Hightower, 2005).

Specific limitations of this approach are:

  • Safe homes often do not have added security features, resulting in concerns over the safety of those involved (for both women seeking protection and the host families) making this a controversial option.
  • The option may only be feasible in low-risk situations due to the limited security features which may be provided through the model.
  • In some more remote communities, women may need to travel (even by air or sea) to reach a safe home, and make arrangements to get there on their own. This may be an additional barrier to receiving support through the model.
  • The temporary nature of safe homes and likely need for women to move to a formal shelter means that women using this model may eventually need to leave their communities and home supports (Tutty, et al,2009b).

Service providers should consider integrating the following components when establishing a safe home network:

  • An assessment of the groups of women (and possibly girls) that might need to access the safe home, their security needs, the safety measures and supports available within the community or easily accessible to survivors (e.g. in neighboring communities). This may help determine whether it is feasible to provide a confidential network of homes or whether it is safer for survivors and community members to support houses in an identified public space that can be secured by the community members.
  • Guidelines on what features must be present in a potential safe home (e.g. telephone connection, easy accessibility by police or other security actors; private sleeping space for the survivor; etc.) based on the realities of the community and the needs of women seeking accommodation.

Example: Women’s Empowerment Link, a non-profit organization in Kenya established criteria for safe homes in the Kibera settlement. The criteria included:

  • the home hasadequate space to host survivor (at least 1 extra bed that could be shared by a maximum of two people);
  • the host has demonstrated commitment to the issue (validated by community recognition of their role as an advocate);
  • the host agrees to offer the safe space voluntarily and does not expect compensation in return for use of the space; and
  • the host is willing to work with and report to the Gender-based Violence Working Group, which is a multisectoral committee comprising security, health and legal representatives.

Source: Grace Mbugua. 2012. Presentation at the Second World Conference on Women’s Shelters. Washington, D.C. February 28, 2012.

  • A protocol of support to be provided in the safe home (e.g. maximum number of days, confidentiality measures, referral procedures, actions to be taken, material and other basic supports to be provided, etc.), to guide hosts in their role and ensure they can appropriately respond to the woman’s needs and address any security or other challenges that may develop (e.g. if the woman’s presence becomes known by the perpetrator or she needs additional assisting in accessing specific services). This should be reinforced through regular training and support to host families.
  • Written agreements or a memorandum of understanding to clarify the roles and responsibilities of different service providers in the community to ensure that minimum security, health and legal assistance is available to survivors accessing safe homes. This may include the establishment of a coordination mechanism for agencies involved or identification of a single focal point to liaise with the survivor and relevant support services.

Example: Girls Empowerment Villages in Zimbabwe

The girls empowerment villages in Zimbabwe are an open community-based model for protecting girls. The Girl Child Network began the initiative in 1999, drawing from the customary practice of Chitsotso (which offerred a traditional space for girls to gather collctively). The programme has established 4 empowerment villages in rural areas as public safe havens for girls who have experienced abuse without access to a shelter. The villages receive support from traditional leaders and are run by professional social workers. They can accommodate approximately 125 girls per month, with 8-10 cases of abuse/ forced marriage and harmful practices received each day through walk-ins or referrals. Key features of the village model are outlined below.

  • A range of services and facilities are provided alongside the accommodation, including separate counseling rooms; a women role models museum; a resource centre with information on sexual and reproductive health, human rights and other important life skills; training on child protection policies and available legal, medical, counselor and social support; and referrals to police, social services, and justice.
  • Partnerships are critical, from the provision of land for the village by the community; links with the community-based multi-stakeholder child monitoring committee; Ministry of Social Welfare, courts and security offices; and training for traditional leaders in child protection.
  • Specific safety and care measures for working with girls have been established, such as policies where staff cannot host a child for more than 24 hours and must bring them to the empowerment village for support; options for girls to stay at the village during school holidays where they do not have an alternative safe accommodation; allowing safe caregivers (e.g. mothers and others) to visit girls at the village if she cannot go home; and follow-up home visits conducted where there has been reunification with family to ensure a girl’s ongoing safety.
  • Village activities are complemented with girl-informed empowerment clubs, which include 700 clubs established across 35 of 85 districts in Zimbabwe. Through awareness-raising and skills development, the clubs have also contributed to increased referrals for adult women (via information shared by girl participants).
  • Economic empowerment and sustainability of villages is supported through income generating projects (e.g. bread-making sales using donated solar ovens or sanitary pad production). Income is used for girls’ school fees, medications and transportation.
  • Sustained support is critical to maintain holistic programming. The cost for accommodation and basic support to 25 girls is US $1,000 per month. Programming for the initiative and related costs of maintaining professional staff has been challenging to the initiative.

See the video Tapestry of Hope’ on the initiative.


Source: Ekenia Chifamba. Presentation at the Second World Conference of Women’s Shelters. Washington, D.C. February 2012.