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Last edited: September 14, 2012

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Prior to initiating the group, organizations should decide:

  • The profile of women participating in the group, which will inform its content and activities. For example, groups for women residing in short-term emergency shelters may focus more on understanding violence and dealing with crisis than groups implemented in transitional or longer-term housing. Shelters may also establish groups for specific sub-groups of women (e.g. minority women; women of a certain faith; lesbians; women with disabilities; women with mental health issues; women with drug or alcohol dependency; older or younger women; refugees, asylum-seekers; etc). Decisions regarding the profile of participants may depend on resources available, including staff knowledge and experience, and the ability to manage risks.
  • The primary goal for the group, which provides a focus for facilitators and participants, and a means to guide the direction of the group. The goal should be developed early to promote the group and engage potential participants. It should be stated at the outset, discussed and (if necessary) revised with participants.
  • The objectives that are needed to achieve the primary goal, with some objectives determined when planning the group, and additional objectives established with participants once sessions begin.
  • For example, if the primary goal is, “To create an environment of mutual support that will enable participants to address their experiences as survivors of violence“, objectives may include:
    • Create a space where each group member feels safe to talk about her personal experiences; and
    • Women’s experiences are shared confidentially within the group.
  • The key learning points that the group will focus on, which can be identified by considering the specific information or knowledge that participants should obtain; attitudes the group is trying to promote or change; and skills members should acquire in order to achieve the objectives. For example, a domestic violence support group might have the following objectives and learning points.

Domestic Violence Support Group Objectives and Learnign Points


Learning Points

Realizing that abuse is not the woman's fault and understanding how abuse is about power and control


Information: the Power and Control wheel; the anatomy of abusive relationships; relationship between gender socialization and abuse in relationships.


Attitudes: a change from justifying/ tolerating abuse to holding the perpetrator responsible; acknowledging the influence of social expectations and socialization on the choices women make when it comes to intimate relationships.


Skills: recognizing patterns of power and control in one's own and other group members’ lives (primarily in intimate relationships, but also with others such as parents, bosses, etc.)

Supporting self-esteem


Information: the positive effects of a better self-esteem on the individual’s mental health, psychosocial situation and parenting skills.


Attitudes: understanding self-esteem as an expression of human dignity.


Skills: methods to discover one's potential and abilities; acknowledge one's achievements; and present one's competencies in an appreciative way to others.

Understanding domestic violence as a form of human rights violation against women and children.


Information: introduction to human rights values (e.g.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women).


Attitudes: understanding human rights as universal values extended to all human beings regardless of gender, race, age, ability, sexual orientation, citizenship, etc.


Skills: analyzing domestic violence situations from the point of view of human rights.

Excerpt: [slightly adapted] Martins, et. al., 2009. “The power to change: How to set up and run support groups for victims and survivors of domestic violence”. NANE Women's Rights Association, Associazione Artemisia, AMCV, NGO Women's Shelter, and Women's Aid Federation of England. UK 

While the specific context and needs of each group may vary, general considerations for planning the size, frequency and duration of groups include:

  • The optimal size for support groups is between 8 and 12 people, although as few as 6 and as many as 14 are acceptable.
  • Weekly meetings may help increase trust and familiarity among members. Holding meetings too frequently can encourage dependency or require too great a commitment, making sessions less constructive.
  • An adequate duration for support groups is approximately 3 months (or 14 weekly sessions), which provides sufficient time for personal development without requiring excessive commitment.
  • Groups may offer a fixed programme with a pre-determined number of sessions, or may be open, offering a non-fixed programme and allowing women who enter the shelter to join the group at any time.

Prior to the first session of the support group, a number of important steps should be followed:

  • Conduct an individual session with each participant prior to the initial group session.  This will allow staff to review a survivor’s circumstances, share information about the group, and discuss the woman’s expectations. It can also be helpful at the initial meeting to prepare a support plan for the woman. This may help to identify any individual needs or opportunities to reduce barriers to participation (e.g. by providing an interpreter).
  • Discuss childcare arrangements with women (where relevant), as they may have sole responsibility for children. Providing childcare or supporting access to other childcare services during the group can help to reduce or eliminate possible barriers to participation. Staff may inquire whether a woman has childcare supports in place and if childcare would be needed for every group or only on occasion; the ages and gender of the children; and whether the children have any special needs that should be considered.
  • Complete a risk assessment with each woman prior to, during and at the end of women’s participation in support groups. Particular attention should be given to the need for risk assessment following group sessions that deal with dangerous subject matter, as this can be a high risk time for women. If the woman is not residing in the shelter, or other protected environment, the risk assessment process may indicate that she is not safe to participate in the group. Depending on the organization’s ability to respond to risk situations, the shelter may not be able to provide support groups for women who are already at significant risk for further violence. Safety planning should be done along with the risk assessment where indicated.