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Humanitarian settings

Last edited: September 14, 2012

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Women and girls are more vulnerable to various forms of violence in conflict, humanitarian and emergency or crisis settings (including during and in the aftermath of natural disasters and situations of armed conflict), with incidents of sexual assault and rape, exploitation, abuse and trafficking, as well as domestic violence often increasing in these contexts. In addition to the increased risk of violence, the disruption to basic security, health, justice and social services during crisis and in humanitarian settings reinforce the importance of safe shelter options for women and girls. This is essential for both those who remain in their home communities as well as those displaced to another location.

Establishing women’s shelters in humanitarian settings is significantly different than setting up shelters elsewhere, and programmes may focus on preventing sexual violence against women as well as protecting survivors of abuse.

Shelter services in humanitarian and emergency settings generally include:

  • Supporting community-based safe houses or accommodation, which may be provided by extended family members, community volunteers or leaders who can support the survivor. As with other safe home initiatives, safety planning and security measures should be established before operationalizing such accommodation options to minimize the risk of harm to survivors and their host families.
  • Establishing dedicated safe spaces for women and, where possible, girls, which offer confidential and anonymous access to services (including basic health services), and allow women and girls to meet, share their experiences and discuss concerns with staff and each other. Such spaces should also consider other marginalized groups who may be at increased-risk of gender-based violence (e.g. transgender people.)
  • Providing and facilitating access to community-based psychological and social support at women's centres or other safe facilities that can be used for meetings, counseling, skills training, and other activities.
  • Designating emergency places for women and girls to receive protection from an immediate threat of violence (which may or may not provide accommodation).
  • Assisting women at-risk and survivors to develop a safety plan and access appropriate protection in the absence of such a plan.
  • While there is limited guidance specific to women’s shelters in humanitarian settings, guidelines for temporary or permanent shelters may be considered in the design or planning of shelters.  

To provide maximum safety and protection against violence (including but not limited to sexual violence and exploitation) for women living in private transitional or permanent housing structures, organizations should:

  • Review and advocate for clear, consistent and transparent criteria for qualifying for shelter assistance, which does not discriminate against survivors of abuse or women seeking accommodation without a male relative. Criteria should also prioritize marginalized women who may be more vulnerable to violence and exploitation, such as heads of households, those with disabilities, elderly, illiterate or unaccompanied young women, ensuring they are not isolated and provided shelter in safe locations. For example, agencies responsible for allocating temporary or transitional housing may reserve plots for vulnerable groups in central areas, close to security and other service providers.
  • Implement processes for determining access to individual accommodation for women, as well as safe communal shelter or foster homes for unaccompanied girls. This may draw upon demographic data collected from registration activities or through collaboration with specialized service providers working with vulnerable groups.
  • Seek input from women and other vulnerable groups on an ongoing basis to identify issues and ensure their needs and security concerns are addressed. Women should be fully engaged and included in camp management processes, including in shelter assessments and management committees, where relevant.
  • Provide adequate space as well as sufficient and appropriate building materials to allow privacy and set up partitions between families, particularly where individual women or female headed-households are residing next to households with men. Ideally, security features such as door locks should be provided where feasible.
  • Ensure that individual accommodation for women does not compromise their safety (e.g. a separate location for single women may in some cases be protective while in other cases, may expose them to harm). Risks should be assessed based on the context using the available Assessment and Monitoring guidance.
  • Regularly assess, monitor and promote the security of accommodation, protection and responses to emerging issues, involving consultation with female beneficiaries as well as women’s groups and others responsible for protection and support services. This may also include groups coordinating efforts to address violence against women (e.g. the inter-agency gender-based violence working group or protection cluster, where there is a United Nations presence).

Specific location and physical infrastructure and layout considerations for the shelter space include:

  • Consulting with women in decisions related to the location of emergency shelters, layout and materials used, processes for constructing and maintaining temporary accommodation, among other issues.
  • Choose a location for the site that allows sufficient sleeping space for the anticipated number of women who may be supported, and that does not pose additional security and protection risks. This should be determined in collaboration with women, and as part of a broader committee of shelter providers.
  • Consider specific risks in the environment surrounding the site, such as the proximity to borders and risk associated with cross-border attacks or distance from food and water collection points, where relevant; as well as proximity or accessibility of the site by trusted security personnel.
  • The location of the shelter should prevent isolation, promote a sense of community and reinforce collective protection while preserving women and their children’s privacy. There should be a common area for children to play where they can be safely monitored by their mothers or caretakers.
  • Provide lighting in communal areas and for personal use (e.g. well-lit latrines and torches for women/families).

Multisectoral coordinated action and collaboration in resource distribution and service provision is central for protection in emergency settings due to the need to quickly establish and implement diverse specialized services (e.g. sanitation and water, health and education, safe shelter). The aim of coordination in these settings is to provide accessible, prompt, confidential and appropriate services, including health, social services, legal, human rights and security to survivors and to establish mechanisms to prevent incidents of sexual violence.

Service providers supporting survivors should be engaged in regular meetings with the shelter coordinating group as well as gender-based violence working groups, promoting the establishment of such a group if it does not exist. Shelter providers should inform the coordinating groups of achievements and challenges in providing safe shelter to women and girls, and contribute to efforts led by agencies coordinating gender-based violence work. This should include the establishment of information-sharing processes to facilitate communication among organizations and registering women and girls arriving at the site. For example, results from coordinated rapid situation analysis can be used to plan safe shelter and programmes. When registering women and girls at the site, those in particular need of safe shelter and assistance should be identified and provided with safe accommodation (i.e. those most vulnerable to sexual violence)

(UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 2003; Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Task Force on Gender and Humanitarian Assistance, 2005. IASC, 2006; Norwegian Refugee Council, 2008; and Ward/GBV Area of Responsibility, 2010)

Example: Safe Houses in Haiti

Responding to the growing need for support for survivors of gender-based violence, six safe houses were established across five regions in Haiti in 2011, with support from UN Women, the Ministry for Women’s Condition and Rights (MCFDF), and the organizations V-Day and Zonta International.

The houses include Myriam Merlet Safe House in Cape Haitian, and two others run by the Association Femmes Soleil d’Haiti, which provide services in the North, North West and North East regions. Two houses in the West, run by the Ministry and the organization Kay Fanm, has been under reconstruction following the January 2010 earthquake. A sixth house of the network in the South East region will be completed in 2012, operated by the Haitian organization Fanm Deside. The safe houses provide training to practitioners and counselors, as well as mentoring and clinical supervision. The Ministry for Women’s Condition and Rights has also provided support by establishing standard operating procedures and a manual of norms for safe houses. The collaboration with the Ministry is critical, as it regulates services provided to women and girls in safe houses at the national level. Targeting safe houses, practitioners, counselors and managers, the guidelines will be published by the Ministry to support their systematic implementation, through certification for safe houses, and quality control of services. The Ministry-operated safe house has been transformed into a training center to support capacity development of future practitioners, strengthening the links and the partnership between the government and women’s organizations. These trainings are essential to ensure that every woman, no matter where she lives, has equal access to quality services, including counselling, medical services, the police and the judiciary.

(Adapted from: UN Women. 2012. Safe Houses Provide Critical Support to Survivors of Violence in Haiti.)



Shelter: Gender Market Tip Sheet: Gender Equality in the Project Sheet (Inter-Agency Standing Committee - IASC, 2010). This tool provides examples and suggestions for programmers to ensure gender is appropriately considered throughout the planning, implementation and monitoring of a shelter initiative, which can be adapted further to focus on issues of gender-based violence. Available in English. 

Collective Centre Guidelines (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and International Organization for Migration, 2010). These guidelines provide suggestions for programme planning around collective centres, including risk factors for gender-based violence and strategies to address them. Available in English. 

Camp Management Toolkit, Chapter 10: Prevention of and Response to Gender-Based Violence (Norwegian Refugee Council, 2008). Available in English.  

Guidelines for Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings. Shelter and Site Planning in Emergency Settings (IASC, 2005). This tool provides detailed guidance on how to coordinate, design and establish shelters and services in emergency settings such as armed conflict. This includes steps required to Assess Security and Define Protection Strategy; Provide Security in Accordance with Needs as well as sections on Coordination and Shelter and Site Planning. Available in English.

Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Against Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons. Guidelines for Prevention and Response (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2003). This guide is for UN agency staff, inter-governmental and non-governmental organisations, refugees and host government agencies who provide protection and assistance to refugees and other persons of concern. The guidelines examine the root causes and factors contributing to sexual and gender-based violence and provide a framework with practical actions for developing effective prevention and response strategies. Available in Arabic, English, French, Romanian, Russian, Spanish and Swahili.