THE BLOG

More Than a Roof: Women's Shelters Changing Lives

27/07/2016 17:34 | Updated 28 July 2016

Violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread forms of abuse worldwide, affecting 35% of women in our lifetimes. Such violence is a daily reality for millions of women and girls, including in the UK. In England and Wales, two women are killed a week by their current or former partner. In Uganda, more than half of women have experienced physical violence at least once since the aged of 15. In Ethiopia, 74% of women aged 15-49 have undergone FGM.

In all countries in the world, gender-based violence exercised through individuals, communities and institutions, violates the human rights of women and girls. It negatively impacts on women's health, their choices and opportunities, and prohibits women and girls from achieving their full potential.

Shelter services are under threat

Despite violence against women and girls being a global issue, the services that protect women are under threat. Funding cuts, closure of shelters and pressure to provide so-called gender-neutral approaches are putting essential services for survivors at risk. Here in the UK, 155 women on average are turned away from refuges each day, and the situation is even more serious in countries such as Ethiopia and Zimbabwe where there are even fewer services.

Womankind Worldwide's most recent report, 'More than a roof: Documenting the work of specialist women's organisations providing holistic shelter services in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe', adds to the growing body of evidence on women's services. Womankind researchers spoke to women survivors of violence, specialist staff that support them and key members of the community in both countries, including government officials and the police. The report highlights the high quality, critical work being carried out by the organisations we partner with, the Association for Women's Sanctuary and Development (AWSAD) in Ethiopia, and Musasa in Zimbabwe and some of the pressing challenges they face.

Violence against women is a daily battle

In Ethiopia, intimate partner violence is highly prevalent and widely socially condoned. Nearly half of all women aged 15-49 experience physical violence in their lifetime and 59% reported sexual violence. Our partner AWSAD runs four women-only shelters in Ethiopia, all of which are facing daily battles with lack of beds and resources for women and girls who have experienced violence. The shelters not only provide a safe and positive environment for women and girls to overcome the trauma of violence, but also recognise that a holistic approach to shelter provision is critical in making women feel empowered and helping them recover more effectively. This means addressing the multiple needs of survivors to include offering immediate and long-term healthcare, responding to sexual and reproductive health needs, facilitating their access to the police and justice system, and also providing opportunities for women to learn new vocational and life skills.

Similarly, in Zimbabwe, where at least 30% of women aged 15-49 have experienced physical violence, our partner Musasa supported 25,880 women and girls across its services in 2015. Like AWSAD, the focus is on holistic services that empower women, and includes two urban shelters, seven community shelters, and a free national counselling line. Musasa is the only organisation providing specialist shelter services in Zimbabwe.

Holistic, women-led shelter services

Despite the different contexts the organisations are working in, there are key similarities and lessons from their work.

First, a holistic approach is key. As the report shows, providing 'more than a roof' means treating the initial needs of women, and then working with them to ensure they have the skills, the confidence and the support to rebuild their lives. From skills training to self-defence lessons, clients told us time and again how the services provided had supported them to gain confidence and feel empowered.

Second, women-led specialist organisations and women-only safe spaces are vital in ensuring holistic, empowering services to women. Organisations such as Musasa and AWSAD take a feminist approach that recognises violence against women and girls as rooted in broader gender inequality and that service provision must aim to empower women and support them to live independent lives free of violence. They have the skills, experience and commitment to make a real difference to the lives of women.

Third, a common challenge faced by each organisation is lack of core, flexible and long-term funding. In Ethiopia, AWSAD is turning away between ten and 20 women a day from one shelter in Addis Adaba. Limited funding means that Musasa cannot recruit more staff which places pressure on existing staff.

Yet we know their support is having an impact on women's lives. As one survivor in Zimbabwe told us "now [after going to Musasa shelter] I am being called a person among other people. I never considered myself a person in my life."

We must make a commitment

The UK government has in recent years done much good work on violence against women and girls in their development programmes and funding and this has frankly saved women's lives. But now more than ever, we must keep up the momentum and commit to more core, flexible and long-term funding for women's rights organisations. These organisations, and the women who work for them, are on the frontline of helping women to rebuild their lives, and tackling the patriarchal structures that underpin violence against women and girls. Smart funding can go a long way in helping them do that.

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