Availability and accessibility of shelter is the cornerstone of a comprehensive response to domestic violence offered by the State, in conjunction with non-governmental organizations (NGOs). This is especially important considering evidence that violence against women has been increasing during the enforced lockdowns stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the need for all States to declare shelters as an essential service during this time.
With the current global situation and the COVID-19 pandemic, women are reaching out for support and safety under lockdowns. The pandemic serves as a wake-up call, highlighting the need to view shelter and other domestic violence interventions as essential, life-saving services. In the Arab region, governments, in partnership with civil society, health care providers and the justice sector must send a message to women and girls that domestic violence is unacceptable, and that help is available.
During the past decade, States in the Arab region have taken steps to address violence against women, including the passage of legislation and the provision of much needed services; however, gaps remain. Most States in the region have shelters, yet their number and geographic distribution is limited. The scarcity of shelters and their services, combined with limited knowledge of their existence or function, can endanger women’s lives. Additionally, patriarchal norms and attitudes coupled with outdated legal frameworks may also contribute to women not accessing shelter.
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These issues are addressed in a recent study by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), in partnership with the United Nations Population Fund – Regional Office for Arab States (UNFPA-ASRO), Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE) and ABAAD Resource Centre for Gender Equality. The research examines the availability, accessibility and quality of service of domestic violence shelters in the Arab region and provides policy recommendations for States to act.
The study is based on a desk review of legislation and questionnaires sent to entities that run shelters, including NGOs and governments. The services of nearly 50 shelters were documented. The received questionnaires reveal that shelters run by NGOs and governments, respectively, offer a wide range of services and support to survivors, including emergency services, counseling, employment and education support, child services, legal aid, transitional housing, and reintegration services.
Patriarchal norms and attitudes coupled with outdated legal frameworks also contribute to women not accessing shelter
The Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences has declared that shelters and protection orders are part of a comprehensive approach to combating violence against women. Ideally, shelters must be run by independent and experienced women’s NGOs with funding and support provided by the government. Furthermore, they should have a gendered understanding of violence, be accessible 24-hours a day, offer comprehensive tailored support to survivors, ensure an empowering environment that promotes survivor engagement and participation, and focus on prevention and awareness raising within the community.
While it is not possible to directly compare all the shelters run by governments and those run by NGOs, the findings show that there are discernible gaps in the way that services are provided and made accessible for survivors of violence.
The clearest difference between government-run shelters and NGO-run shelters is funding. All government-run shelters surveyed are fully funded. The difference this makes, compared with other shelters run by NGOs is significant. Shelters run by NGOs often work on a shoestring budget, which impacts staffing, capacity, sustainability and the level of support they can offer survivors and their children. In fact, several shelters with the highest accommodation rates had the tightest budgets. Furthermore, heavy reliance on international funding threatens their sustainability and the consistent provision of service.
Another difference is that NGOs running shelters also raise awareness about violence against women and engage in outreach in their local communities (and, in some cases, regionally and globally), while also advocating for greater State-wide legal reform. Government-run shelters commonly do not engage in this type of activism that owns much to women’s organizing at the grassroots level.
Some government-run shelters and some NGO-run shelters provide services without employing relevant professionals, which can present a gap in the quality of service provision. These shelters may use a mix of paid staff and volunteers in varying ratios. While this is common globally, in some instances it means that a shelter lacks specialized persons, both in terms of experience and education. Despite these gaps, all shelters surveyed provide regular training and capacity-building for their staff, including communication and listening skills, legal awareness, and provisions on how to best engage survivors.
Several shelters with the highest accommodation rates had the tightest budgets
All shelters welcome survivors that experience different forms of gender-based violence, including sexual violence or rape by a stranger, while most accept survivors of human trafficking. Most of the shelters accept referrals 24-hours a day, seven days a week; however, almost all have regulations that restrict access to some groups of women that contravenes the principle of access for all. For example, few shelters accommodate a wide range of women, including elderly women, women with disabilities, and women with mental health concerns. Women may self-refer to all the shelters run by NGOs, except in Bahrain and the State of Palestine. However, shelters run by governments do not commonly accept self-referrals and only host women referred through another governmental channel.
During a shelter stay, government-run shelters provide survivors with necessities, counseling, legal support and health services, and almost all offer some form of rehabilitation or community reintegration. NGO-run shelters offer similar services, in addition to immediate support for survivors and their children; this includes support after the shelter stay, something not commonly provided by government-run shelters. Some of the NGO-run shelters also provide employment and education support, continued counseling, transitional housing and limited financial support with rent.
Notably, the research finds that over half of responding shelters, regardless of affiliation, offer mediation and/or reconciliation services between the survivor and perpetrator. The Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences has warned that allowing such services can endanger a survivor and her family, therefore they should not be offered. Adjacently, only two NGOs that run shelters, in Algeria and Lebanon, respectively, provide counseling services for perpetrators.
Lastly, only seven countries in the region have enacted violence against women laws; such legislation tends to be incomplete or unclear on the provision of shelter. Furthermore, many States’ legal frameworks are inconsistent in their position on combatting domestic violence, leading to a lack of clarity on the definition of and right to shelter. Moreover, these frameworks often fail to address the establishment, regulation, and funding of shelters, particularly in relation to other protection mechanisms.
As we can see, in addition to a safe place to sleep, government-run and NGO-run shelters in the Arab region aim to offer an array of services for female survivors of violence. However, we also see gaps in the provision of service, either due to limited funding, limited human resources, an unclear awareness of the survivor-centred approach or a lack of concrete legal frameworks, in their efforts to deliver services for female survivors of violence. Based on the research, NGO-run shelters are better placed to render comprehensive and empowering services to survivors and the community at-large, but this cannot be done without resources, both material and financial, from the government, as well as clear legal guidelines to ensure the important work of shelters.
With the pandemic exacerbating an already severe domestic violence problem in the Arab region, shelter for survivors is now more important than ever.