Safety first

Safety is a fundamental tenet that guides our work with women who have experienced abuse, and it is at the centre of all of our decisions. Safety, for us, not only means a woman’s physical safety but also her emotional safety and her financial and social security. A woman’s experience of you, a helping professional, may be some of her first experiences of feeling safe, cared for and respected. 

The most dangerous place for a woman is in her home but our social institutions do not reflect this reality. We know that a woman is far more likely to be injured by her partner than she is to be injured by a stranger but we don’t construct services and institutional responses as if this were true. If a woman’s physical injuries are apparent, there may be concern for her safety but there seems to be little concern shown for a woman’s emotional safety, protecting her from financial ruin, or mitigating her vulnerability to becoming homeless. 

Women bring their experiences of inequality, discrimination, oppression, poverty, violence and abuse into their encounters with us. To create a safe environment for women, advocates must acknowledge these experiences and work hard to counter the past and present effects of abuse and oppression. Creating safety for women is best achieved by forming safe, respectful relationships with women and respecting that women are working hard to regain their lives and decisions. When we interact with women as if they are not capable, have ‘made bad decisions’ or have trouble managing, we create an unsafe and disrespectful context.

Below we offer some examples of how we think about creating a safe space for women and how our conversations with women keep their safety as our primary focus.

In our experience, women are already doing many things to try to keep themselves and their children safe, whether they are with their abusive partner or they have left. Women often do not name these adaptations as safety strategies. It is our role to help women see how they have been trying to stay safe but that this is really impossible in a situation of abuse. Below is an exchange between Karen and a woman in the group to illustrate this point.

Woman: I don’t know why I gave him the money. It was so stupid. I knew he was going to gamble it away.
Karen: Could you have said “no”when he demanded the money?
Woman: No! He would have thrown me against the wall like he did last time.
Karen: It doesn’t sound to me like you were being stupid when you gave him the money. It sounds to me like you did not really have a choice and that the safest thing to do at the time was to give him the money. It is painful to see that your partner has put you in such awful situations.

Many organizations encourage women to write out a safety plan. We do not take this approach. It seems sometimes that this is more about the organization’s sense of what is needed than is perhaps what the woman needs. Instead, we simply talk to a woman about safety throughout our process with her. We look for opportunities to highlight the many ways she is already looking out for her safety and gently make suggestions of things she might consider doing. For example, we might tell a woman about the local shelter and all the services it provides including a 24/7 crisis line. Knowing there is an informed person who can be reached any time, day and night might help a woman feel less alone and might allow for her to access a valuable resource at a critical time. At the same time, we always try to remember that women have often already tried to access many services and may have had negative experiences. We never want to be controlling (like her abuser) and tell her what she “should” do, or treat her like she doesn’t know or understand. Rather, we want to collaborate with her in her desire for safety – showing interest and admiration for what she is already doing and, perhaps, providing her with information of which she may not be aware. We keep in mind that abusers take away all the good options and leave women with only bad options. We know there is never an easy solution when dealing with an abusive man.  

Our responsibility is to ensure that women feel safe, physically, emotionally and spiritually, during all their interactions with us. When we meet a woman for the first time, she has already had her physical and emotional safety threatened. The impacts of abuse can leave women feeling vulnerable, physically exhausted, mentally depleted, overwhelmed and hopeless. No matter what their unique circumstances, leaving an abusive partner often thrusts women into further crisis, increased vulnerability, poverty and the threat of homelessness. This is not ‘who she is’ (e.g. homeless’), but it is ‘what has happened to her’. We are here to walk with her as she regains her life.

Applying a safety first approach to all our work

How do we ensure that women feel safe, physically and emotionally, during all their interactions with us?

  • All interactions should be respectful to help counter women’s fears and concerns.
  • Always ensure that women have control over what information they share, who they share it with and what is recorded.
  • Recognize that women’s lives often continue to be controlled, and her decisions and actions are mediated by fear of reprisal from an abusive partner. 
  • Avoid repeating the dynamics of power and control in relationships with women with support. (Eg. ultimatums, judging decisions or opinions, pressuring women to do things)
  • Avoid creating rules. These disempower women and send a message that we don’t trust her, and runs the risk of alienating women from services.