In a number of countries, the provision of shelters and similar services is not mandated by law, despite adequate housing being an internationally recognized human right. Where it is, legislation does not always compel governments to fund or otherwise ensure the provision or monitoring and evaluation of these services. Legislation can encourage governments to honour their international obligations to protect women from violence by strengthening their ability to initiate, support and improve the quality of women’s shelters and provide for longer-term housing and livelihood options to empower women and girls to overcome their experiences with abuse (UN-HABITAT).
In line with their international and regional commitments, states have an obligation to provide shelters and protection for women and girls fleeing violence. For example:
- Reinforcing the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, through its General Recommendation 19 (1992) recommends that “States parties should establish or support services for victims of family violence, rape, sexual assault and other forms of gender-based violence, including refuges, specially trained health workers, rehabilitation and counselling” (24k); recognizes the importance of shelters as a measure to ensure the security and safety of survivors of family violence (riii); and calls on states to “take all legal and other measures that are necessary to provide effective protection of women against gender-based violence, including, inter alia... Protective measures, including refuges, counselling, rehabilitation and support services for women who are the victims of violence or who are at risk of violence”(tiii).
- The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in its General Comment 16, Article 3 (2005) has noted that States parties are required “to provide victims of domestic violence, who are primarily female, with access to safe housing” (Paragraph 22), as part of their obligations in implementing Article 10 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
- The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Convention on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution (2002) calls for the establishment of shelters by states parties or their authorization and encouragement of non-governmental organizations to do so (Article IX).
- In the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (Convention of Belém do Pará) (1994), “The States Parties agree to undertake progressively specific measures, including programs:…to provide appropriate specialized services for women who have been subjected to violence, through public and private sector agencies, including shelters, counseling services for all family members where appropriate, and care and custody of the affected children” (Article 8d).
- Signatories to the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (2011) have agreed to “take the necessary legislative or other measures to provide for the setting-up of appropriate, easily accessible shelters in sufficient numbers to provide safe accommodation for and to reach out pro-actively to victims, especially women and their children.” (Article 23 – Shelters).
In addition to their binding obligations, states have been urged to provide shelters through various international instruments and human rights agreements. For example:
- The GA Resolution 63/155 (2009) urged states “to establish shelters and crisis centers for victim support, and to ensure―adequate and comprehensive rehabilitation and reintegration of victims of violence into society”.
- The Beijing Platform for Action (Section 126 (a)), calls on states to “provide well‐funded shelters and relief support for girls and women subjected to violence, as well as medical, psychological and other counseling services and free or low cost legal assistance, where it is needed, as well as appropriate assistance to enable them to find a means of subsistence.”
Shelters can encourage states to comply with these standards by promoting the development of clear and compelling legislation and public policy on their services. This involves engaging in political advocacy to:
- ensure relevant laws are in place;
- advance the development or implementation of national action plans;
- promote the establishment of protocols/guidelines to support standardized implementation of national and sub-national policies;
- create a national monitoring system and review of their implementation through independent evaluations for maximizing their effectiveness; and
- ensure sufficient, ongoing direct state funding is committed to non-governmental organizations for the operation of shelters and their services (Advocates for Human Rights, Guiding Principles for Developing Legislation).
Advocacy should be based on a situational analysis of the existing legal framework and gaps in services. It is important to be aware of the laws and policies that are already in place at the regional, national and sub-national levels, as well as what level of government or specific state bodies have jurisdictional responsibility for supporting shelters and their services (Advocates for Human Rights, Understanding the Government Structure, Legal Obligations and Legislative Process).
Organizations should consider the impact that such advocacy work might have on their operations. For example:
- Given the limited resources often available for shelter services, organizations might need to determine how to allocate resources between direct service provision and advocacy efforts to increase support for their operations.
- Many existing shelters do not have staff dedicated to policy advocacy due to lack of resources, and such work is often implemented by the director, shelter coordinator or person responsible for communications and coordination within a regional or national shelter association. Consideration of who will lead and sustain these efforts, which often require a long-term commitment, is important at the outset of any advocacy initiative (Canadian Network of Women’s Shelters and Transition Houses, 2011).
- Government funding provided to shelters may set specific conditions on and limits to their advocacy role, which should be reviewed when pursuing state funds as well as developing advocacy initiatives.
See detailed guidance on advocating for legislation (Advocates for Human Rights, 2010).