The Beginnings of the Help System

The history of women’s shelters in Germany reaches back to the second half of the 1970s. We asked some of our member associations to tell us about the emergence of their institution.


Area manager Women’s Shelters in Saarland, Workers‘ Welfare Association, 2018

“Operated by the regional organisation of the Workers’ Welfare Assocation (AWO), the first place of refuge for women and children in Saarbrücken was founded in 1979. In its role as the responsible body, the AWO was indeed controversial: The actors involved were initially demanding an independently organised women’s shelter. But the commissioner for social affairs at the time disagreed and assigned the AWO with the project, since he expected a greater degree of stability of its organising role.

In 1986, the shelter in Saarlouis followed, and in 1989, one in Neunkirchen. To this day, the three women’s shelters together provide 55 places for women and children, who are affected by violence in their social life. Each of the women who were actively and substantially involved in founding the women’s shelters in Saarlouis and Neunkirchen established sponsorship associations that until today support and accompany the work done at both locations. Hence, for almost 40 years, the AWO has been the responsible body for the work done in Saarland-based women’s shelters.

Today the help system around women’s shelters is not controversial anymore and, against the background of processes of societal change, it is again and again confronted with new and topical questions and demands. In the founding years, the aid approach entailed completely different struggles and pleadings: Do we need a women’s shelter at all? Does violence against women exist in our little state called Saarland? These were the questions that the initiators both within and outside the AWO were then confronted with.“    

But they never let themselves and their work be reduced to the role of a ‘refuge’ for abused women and their children and instead they stood up, from day one, for comprehensive social and legal changes for dealing with this socio-political problem. Then as now, we are actively involved in Saarland’s round table against domestic table as well as various committees and working groups, and we organise various forms of public action.”    

A voice from a women’s shelter operated by theSocial Service of Catholic Women North Rhine-Westphalia, 2017:

“In the mid-1970s the autonomous women’s movement raised much political pressure to establish a shelter where women were safe from male violence. For the CDU-run city council members, domestic violence in this prospering city was something unimaginable, but eventually had to gave in to the insistent demand for the support of a women’s shelter. However, they didn't support the autonomous women, but rather asked us who were a renowned Catholic provider of women-specific social work.

The autonomous women’s movement acted as a dedicated spearhead that met with a lot of resistance. They were upset that we – who they considered ‘old, musty Catholic maidens’ – received public funding for establishing the shelter. In 1981, we were finally able to open the women’s shelter, which emerged from our already existing shelter for vulnerable and homeless women and children. Already on the opening day we welcomed the first woman with her two children.”

A counsellor working for the district office of the Diakonie on the opening of the shelter for women and children, December 1984:

“Finally, we don’t have to send women, who arrive at our counselling centre and tell us about their experiences of domestic violence, back home anymore; instead, we can offer them a safe place to stay.”

A voice from a women’s shelter operated by the Social Service of Catholic Women in Bavaria:

“In the early 1980s, the Soroptimists in our town showed strong political commitment to women‘s affairs and through their husbands exerted influence on local politics. Since we in our role as a women’s association were experienced in operating a mother-child facility and working with mentally ill women, the mayor eventually offered us a spacious apartment for abused women. This was the beginning of the women’s shelter that would come later.

We had already devised a concept and a cost calculation for operating a shelter for women affected by violence. At that time, however, scarcely anybody had professional experience. Fortunately, a dedicated ministerial advisor managed to bring together women organised in associations and those working autonomously and to get them involved in developing guidelines. Hence our cooperation with the autonomously organised women(’s shelters) was always good.  

Opened in 1996, our women’s shelter was fully occupied in no time. Especially for women from the surrounding villages, it was something difficult and shameful to turn to a women’s shelter. Societal and family-related forms of discrimination were widespread: ‘She has failed to make her husband a comfortable home.‘ ‘We all have our cross to bear.‘ ‘The household will be heading south if she doesn’t participate in the work.’ In most cases, the women could not return to their village and considered the search for an apartment as humiliating, although it was the men who should have been ashamed!

During the first years, we were very active politically, so as to raise public awareness for the issue of violence against women. Politics and church were highly sceptical. As a Catholic women’s association, we had to struggle to find support for our commitment to combatting violence against women.“  

A voice from an autonomous women’s shelter, member of the Parity Regional Association Bavaria 2017

“When I was a student and, together with other women active in the women’s movement, founded the first women’s shelters in Würzburg almost 40 years ago, I believed it would be enough to offer the abused women protection, to help them receive social benefits and find a competent lawyer. Once they have escaped the violence used by their husbands and once they have been empowered by the companionship with other women, they would be on their way into a life without violence. These are still basic tenets of the work of a women’s shelter.

Soon after I was the first and initially the only full-time employee in the women’s shelter in Schweinfurt. At that time, a threatened and abused women needed even more courage to turn, together with her children, to a women‘s shelter that many people deemed socially unacceptable.

I did not expect that experience of violence had scarred the women so deeply that they were left without hope for a way out.

Many were mentally disturbed, some were addicted to drugs and alcohol, all of them suffered from physical pain. I quickly understood that women who had experienced domestic violence for years needed more than a roof over their head. We were worried for good reason that the women would be additionally stigmatised and thus left without any chance to obtain custody for the children who were emotionally burdened as well. 

There was no model for how to work with women and children who came looking for shelter. The social work practice at that time struck us as inappropriate. Hence it was all the more important to regularly exchange experience with our colleagues in other women’s shelters, who, besides assisting the women and children, had to struggle for acceptance and funding as an institution operating a women’s shelter. The Parity Training Institute (Paritätisches Bildungswerk) organised the first training courses that addressed the open questions in the work practice of women’s shelters – this is also where the Association of Women’s Shelters has its origins.

A voice from the State Intervention and Coordination Centre for Cases of Domestic Violence and Stalking, The PARITÄTISCHE Saxony-Anhalt, 2017

“There was not a singular initiative or event that led to the establishment of women’s shelters in Saxony-Anhalt after reunification. The process of taking up the work of women’s shelters and victim protection was rather a result of the struggle for women’s rights. After reunification, many committed women joined forces throughout this state in order to establish women’s clubs and centres. Their intention was to organise open exchanges in women’s groups and to stand up for women’s rights. In this context, they were confronted with violence against women – something that was so far a taboo issue – and mobilised numerous supporters in municipalities and cities so as to quickly create protected spaces for women affected by violence.     

The first shelters for women affected by violence were opened in 1991. One year later, I started the state working group of women shelter’s in Saxony-Anhalt that united all the women’s shelter in the state, irregardless of their particular funding body. Today, there are 19 women’s shelters in Saxony-Anhalt.”

Published in 1979 in the association’s magazine “Parität Aktuell“:

A voice from an Intervention Centre against domestic violence and stalking in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, 2017:

“In October 2001 the five intervention centres in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania took up their work. Its establishment had been advocated by the interdisciplinary intervention project against domestic violence, CORA, as well as state parliamentary representatives and the state secretary for women and gender equality of the state government of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania. The intervention centres were supposed to function as linkages between protective measures according to both police law and civil law. This way the cooperation between the institutions involved in combatting domestic violence has been effectively improved.

Intervention centres are characterised by the fact that they establish contact proactively, that they locally approach and counsel those seeking help. The clients‘ feedback confirms that intervention centres work very successfully this way and that their counselling is readily made use of:

‘Such a form of counselling was completely unknown to me. If I had known about it earlier, I could have saved me a lot of trouble.‘

‘Thanks to the counselling, I was able to break up. Many thanks.‘

‘I'm excited and glad they exist. Otherwise I wouldn‘t have learned about all the options available to me. And they also give me the feeling that someone understands me and that I'm not alone.‘

Quoted in: Scientific Monitoring of Intervention Projects 2001-2003, Uni Osnabrück Kavemann/Brandfass