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Emergency safe spaces

Last edited: September 14, 2012

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Community facilities that provide specialized services, such as hospitals, health centres or crisis centres; spaces owned by religious institutions or places of worship (e.g. churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, etc.); as well as businesses (e.g. hotels, offices, etc.) may serve as important temporary accommodation options for women fleeing violence in communities where shelter facilities are lacking or unaccessible.

Similar to safe home networks, emergency spaces should be developed with an understanding of the particular needs and risks of women fleeing violence and the services available to them in the community. The public nature of these spaces may serve as a deterrant for perpetrators in certain circumstances, and some sites may have specific security measures in place which can offer women some level of immediate protection (e.g. security guards, video surveillance, private rooms, doormen, etc.) while they access more comprehensive safety services.

Safe accommodation spaces should be developed in collaboration with shelters and other service providers to ensure responses uphold guiding principles of survivor-centred and empowering practices. This can prevent women from being revictimized in the process of seeking support (e.g. being held in custodial or institutional settings) and ensure those offering protection understand the appropriate supports they may be able to offer (e.g. listening to whatever they want to share in a non-judgemental manner, providing reassurance that they are not to blame for the abuse, and access to relevant referral information, etc.) as well as those services that should be provided by specilaized professionals (e.g. counseling, any contact with perpetrators, legal advice, etc.).

Each space should establish particular protocals for how survivors will be protected in areas that are open and accessible to the general public ( centres, churches, office buildings). This includes determining, in collaboration with survivor support organizations, who may be supported (women and girls or only adult women); what support may be provided (e.g. access to a private and secure space for up to a particular number of hours/days); and how to engage staff employed at the facility to appropriately respond to women seeking services. For example:

  • A health centre may need to provide specific training to all staff on the safe space services to be offered by the facility, or designate and train select employees in responding to women seeking accommodation (e.g. staff working in hospital-based one-stop centres)
  • Hotels may need to discuss and establish specific security and registration procedures for accommodating women fleeing abuse so that their information is only accessed by the minimum number of staff and their records cannot be accessed by other employees or potential perpetrators. This may include registering women under an alias with contact details that cannot be traced to the survivor; hosting women in an area that can be easily accessed by police or security guards and that cannot be easily accessed by outsiders.
  • Places of worship should ensure any employee engaging with women survivors have basic training on the issue, confidentiality measures that must be maintained, and the importance of not promoting a particular course of action (e.g. mediation, couples counseling in cases of domestic violence or reconciliation with the perpetrator).
  • Businesses should identify any general information and specific training that may be needed for security staff or employees that may come into contact with a woman seeking support. For example, service providers may conduct an orientation on the issue to all staff and a list of actions and referral contacts may be created and accessible to staff to ensure they have appropriate information that might be needed by survivors.


Example: Meri Seif Ples (Papua New Guinea)

Meri Seif Ples is an alternative accommodation initiative established in 2003 in Papua New Guinea aimed at curbing domestic violence. Families or commercial/public organizations provide emergency accommodation in a variety of places including: business or industrial premises, and private homes.

The initiative aims to help women in danger of domestic violence as well as those at-risk of violence in the workplace or in public spaces. By engaging with businesses and families to offer emergency shelter, women who are in danger of various forms of violence are able to access a safe place.

The initiative relies heavily on community support for its success, and operates under the belief that it is the responsibility of all sectors of the community as well as the government to eliminate violence against women. All Meri Seif Ples shelters are provided by community members (whether individual families or businesses). In addition to the provision of shelter for women, the initiative also reinforces community-awareness by promoting a message that domestic violence is wrong, and facilitates ways for the community to come together to end it.

Key components of the initiative include:

  • Creation of an Urban Safety Team, which:
    • Serves as a contact and registers families and organizations who are interested in providing a Meri Seif Ples shelter, and
    • Assists families and organizations with the provision of materials to promote the safety of women.
    • Establishment of Meri Seif Ples shelters, which is supported by the Urban Safety Team and is marked by a specific sign on their door or an obvious location on the building. Women who see the signs can access the building and receive shelter and support to the best of the family or organization’s abilities.
    • Promotion of community awareness of the initiative to increase outreach to women at-risk of violence through:
      • Infomercials aired on Papua New Guinea’s national television station with contact information on the initiative (e.g. telephone number, website, and e-mail address). See the videos:

Meri Seif Ples- Say No to Violence

Meri Seif Ples: CPL Group, City Pharmacy, Stop Shop, Hardware Haus

Meri Seif Ples: Kwila Insurance

Famli SEIF Haus - Kaugere Settlement Port Moresby

      • A series of postage stamps published on the Yumi Lukautim Mosbi Projek, including the Meri Seif Ples initiative.
      • Word of mouth.
      • Signs hanging on the gates and doors of businesses and families.
      • Enforcement of a cool-down period on potential abuser to help prevent the potential abuser from committing a crime, alongside the provision of shelter for women in danger.  
      • Provision of information for and access to longer-term support through Meri Seif Ples’s partner initiative, the Yumi Lukautim Mosbi Projek.
Sources: Meri Seif Ples Website. WHAT IS MERI SEIF PLES?  (Meri SEIF Ples, N.D) - Online brochure


Case Study: Creating Safe Spaces through Community-Based Partnerships
(Antigua & Barbuda)

Form of Violence




Rape/attempted rape




Domestic violence or threats




Other sexual assault




The Directorate of Gender Affairs in Antigua and Barbuda, the principal agency responsible for addressing gender inequalities, including violence against women, has developed multiple safe spaces throughout the country to protect survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault (including rape) and trafficking. The spaces provide emergency and temporary accommodation, and are tailored to the context of creating safe spaces for women and children in a small island state. The initiative was developed in response to the significant number rape, domestic abuse and other sexual assault cases reported between 2008 and 2010, which had remained consistent since 2005.

Despite its adoption of strong legal instruments addressing violence against women, the protection of women and children against perpetrators has remained a critical challenge to law enforcement and partnering social service agencies. It is often difficult to maintain a victim’s safety after protection orders are served or arrests made given the islands’ small population size and close-knit communities. Although police implement their own strategies to prevent retaliation to survivors (such as holding perpetrators for up to 48 hours as a ‘cool down’ period and to facilitate the processing of orders of protection), there are many instances where protection orders are broken. Perpetrators have returned to their homes, threatened the survivor, and even inflicted further harm. In some cases, family homes have been destroyed by perpetrators using fire and other means, in order to exert their power and control, and persuade family members to drop charges, flee in fear, or face the threat of murder.

In many cases, domestic violence perpetrators have been removed from shared homes, allowing children to maintain levels of normalcy during difficult family situations. However, acts of retaliatory violence by some perpetrators have reinforced the need for a complementary approach.

In this context, women’s organizations have strongly advocated for the creation of women’s safe houses, with several efforts made by non-governmental organizations to establish such shelters. Many challenges to operating these spaces relate to the small population of closely-connected neighbours and families, many based in the same village or town for generations. In this setting, it is easy for the public to identify the location and label the space as a shelter, with access to survivor information possibly being disclosed through distant relatives or friends. This creates a high potential for survivors and their children, as well as other families at the shelters, to be placed at risk of future violence. These factors limit the length of time in which each centre may be used, and their ability to facilitate the needs of women who required, in most instances, emergency relocation.

In response to these challenges, the Directorate recognized the need for a timely system of support, which could effectively meet the emergency needs of women, maintain their confidentiality and ensure that they remain safe in highly volatile situations. Working with partnering agencies, it has developed a system which could ensure the protection of women and children through placement in safe accommodation. Drawing upon the existing 24-hour crisis hotline (268-463-5555) launched by the Directorate and the Antigua Planned Parenthood Association in 1997, the Directorate partnered with private citizens and corporatations to establish protective spaces for women and children seeking immediate relocation.

The effort has led to the establishment of multiple safe spaces used on-call for temporary accommodating women and children. Key features of the initiative include: 

  • Forming a list of private citizens, small hoteliers and landlords across the country who agree to house clients of the Directorate at no cost, for negotiable short-term periods.
  • Support from family members who are able to provide safe accommodation.
  • Agreement of private partners to prepare housing locations on-call, as needed.
  • Use of locations on a rotating and infrequent basis to ensure the highest level of confidentiality and anonymity for survivors, and to avoid labelling the locations as shelters (which would occur if they were used more frequently).
  • Employment counseling and other support mechanisms and services through the Directorate for women who would like such assistance.
  • Encouragement and support for police efforts to utilize its operating powers to remove perpetrators from the home and facilitate women and children to safely leave and begin the process of relocation.
  • Directorate support for survivors applying for orders of protection, occupation and tenancy orders, and support for a protocol which ensures that families may remain in or return to their homes, while perpetrators are removed, arrested and prosecuted.
  • Provision of a court advocacy and accompaniment service, assisting women with applications for protection orders under the Domestic Violence Summary Proceedings Act, 1999, throughout the court process and follow up support.
Over a period of 5 years, the Directorate assisted over 100 women and children in relocating to safe spaces throughout the country. Clients have either returned to their homes, or relocated to new homes after short stays at the established safe spaces. Although spaces have not been identified by perpetrators, community members have identified certain homes or apartments in their neighbourhoods as places where abused women and children are housed. When this occurs, the Directorate discontinues use of the space for relocation. This reduces the number of safe spaces available and increases the difficulty in relocating survivors, and is an ongoing challenge given the small size of the island. The Directorate continues to seek new partnerships, and work with other agencies to establish viable alternatives that serve women’s best interests.

Lessons Learned

  • Engaging voluntary assistance from concerned citizens is important for the success of such local initiatives, but needs to be supported by institutionalized mechanisms to ensure long-term sustainability of the programme. This would enable the Directorate to compensate partners for any relevant expenses, and offer longer-term housing options for survivors, through resources which could assist them in the transition from abuse. 
  • Gaining and maintaining community support for ending gender-based violence is not only a priority, but a prerequisite for developing the necessary framework for supporting women and their families. The development of a strong community-based support network to end all forms of gender-based violence is maintained through ongoing awareness-raising and education to sensitize the general public of relevant programmes and activities. This helps to ensure the continued citizen support provided to women and children, and is strengthened through engagement with communities and local groups in programmes and interventions addressing violence against women.  
  • International campaigns, legal instruments and grassroots-based initiatives can be employed to reinforce national obligations and broader human rights standards and agreements underlying local inititiatives addressing these issues.

Source: Directorate of Gender Affairs, Antigua and Barbuda.


Safe Haven Manual (The Advocacy Centre, 2003). Available in English.