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Establishing and operating help lines

Last edited: September 14, 2012

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Key considerations in planning for a helpline as part of shelter services include determining the:

  • Purpose for the helpline. Who are the groups that the helpline is intended to serve and what are their needs? Helpline services may provide general support targeting all women and girls in the community at risk of violence or seeking to escape situations of violence; specialist services responding to particular circumstances (e.g. women in crisis); services focusing on particular issues, such as trafficking or sexual assault; and or those targeting specific groups, such as adolescents, migrants or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
    • General helplines (i.e. to address all forms of violence, health and wellness issues experienced by women) require significant staff who are sufficiently trained and informed as well as organizational knowledge of support services for women.
    • Highly specialized helplines (i.e. women in crisis situations) may limit the reach of the service to specific groups of women at risk, and support to victim identification.
  • Scope of services. What type of service will the helpline offer (e.g. information, referral, support, counseling, etc) and what languages will be spoken by helpline staff/ volunteers? To be most accessible, the various languages of women within the geographic area to be served should be considered in planning a helpline. Multilingual services may be facilitated by recruiting counsellors that speak a range of languages and implementing a telephone, online or SMS system that are directed to the appropriate counselor.
  • Operation of the helpline, including human and financial resources required.
    • Who will be responding and what resources (funding and staffing) will be available to support its operation? Calls may be answered by volunteers or staff with training in crisis intervention and knowledge of the locally-relevant legal procedures required to access protection orders and other remedies. In either case, practical training and supervision are essential in responding to calls from survivors and those at-risk of violence.
    • The number of hotline counselors and supervisors needed depends on the size of the hotline as well as the hours it will be operating.
    • It is crucial to provide training and supervision of hotline staff, both to ensure they have relevant information to provide women and girls, and the necessary counseling skills and related competencies for each mode of delivery: telephone, online or SMS.
    • Technical expertise should also be identified to ensure functioning and support and problems related to telephone and computer technology.
    • Can helpline services be offered toll-free? This may depend on the telecommunications infrastructure in the particular country or region. If a free number cannot be established, it might be useful to create a dedicated mobile number that can receive text or sms messages, which hotline workers can then call back to reduce costs to women and girls seeking help.
    • Geographic area to be covered. Resource, staff availability and telecommunications infrastructure may help determine whether the help line will be national or local and cover a particular location (e.g. urban centre, both urban and nearby rural areas, or remote communities) (Bennett, et. al., 2004; Coman and Associates, 2001 as cited in Vukasovic, et. al.,2010; Stratten & Ainslie, 2003).