Creating Safe Spaces: Tactics for Communities at Risk

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Monday, March 11, 2013 to Friday, March 15, 2013
Conversation type: 
Type of tactical goal: 

Summary available

Thank you for joining the New Tactics community for an online conversation on Creating Safe Spaces: Tactics for Communities at Risk from March 11 to 15, 2013.

Sometimes, in order to make the change we seek to be realized, we need to model it so that the community can experience it for themselves. Creating a safe space in which everyone’s rights are recognized and respected gives communities at risk the opportunity live without fear of persecution or abuse. Creating this space also allows the vulnerable group to understand and experience the realization of their human rights, and giving them and the broader community a vision to work towards.

In Egypt, Harassmap is working closely with business owners to create safe spaces for women. These business owners agree to stand up for women who are experiencing harassment in their community. Not only does this create a safer community for women, but it models a community in which human rights are respected and protected. In Thailand, the Empower Foundation provides a physical space where sex workers are treated with respect. The Empower Foundation has also successfully lobbied for the inclusion of sex workers in Thailand’s social security scheme. Now, sex workers have access to maternity and medical benefits. In India, Bachpan Bachao Andolan developed the concept and application of child friendly villages as a way to not only promote education for all but also combat the cycle of child labor.  The aim of child friendly villages is to create and sustain a child friendly atmosphere within the community to ensure education and put an end to child labor.

This online conversation is an opportunity for practitioners to share their examples, experiences, challenges and ideas around creating safe spaces for groups at risk and build communities that put human rights into practice.


Tactic examples shared in the conversation:

Why create safe spaces and what do they look like?

Participants concluded that “safe spaces” serve to protect vulnerable populations, send a message to other at-risk individuals or communities and their oppressors, provide a space for freedom of expression, model an ideal community, and multiply supporters and solidarity for a safer environment free of human rights violations. The phrase “safe space” can refer to a shelter, accompaniment by a safeguard, political refuge in another city or country, peacebuilding programs, a website or online space for communication, or even an ideological or personal space for strength and empowerment. Several participants expressed that the characteristics of spaces and mechanisms for maintaining them depend majorly on the specific situations of those at risk and the threatening forces from which they seek protection. For example, the needs and goals of women and children at-risk of labor or sex trafficking differ tremendously from those of human rights activists or journalist threatened by their governments.

Depending on the demography of such vulnerable populations, organizations will identify allies and formulate “extraction to shelter” strategies accordingly.  Some residential safe havens that protect trafficking victims or at-risk youth may prioritize meeting basic needs, securing medical or legal assistance, and establishing a system of support for healthy reintegration into society. One participant stressed the need for child advocates to maintain awareness and thorough understanding of child endangerment, children’s rights, and effective modes of protecting youth. In contrast, people who are threatened or persecuted for their human rights work by authorities may instead seek a safe place to continue their activist or artistic work. In this case, one participant shared that with local motivation, support from city and national governments, and augmenting presence on the internet are key for preserving the safety of persecuted writers associated with ICORN. Participants also shared the value of technology in establishing and increasing the security of spaces; interactive mapping and emergency hotlines stood out as two of the many tools organizations utilize to promote safer environments for those at risk.

Finally, one participant noted that, by being mindful of failures to secure safe spaces, organizations can learn from past mistakes to continue to promote the highest possible level of safety and security for at-risk people.

How are these safe spaces created and used?

Mechanisms for creating and maintaining safe spaces depend heavily on the nature of the source of the threat and the population or individual at-risk; threats or violence can be “vertical,” meaning violence played out between community members, or “horizontal,” in which individuals such as human rights activists, artists, or writers are targets of politically or economically powerful actors.

Although the term “vertical” threat does not account for the power differentials in gender-based violence, local residents and actors are able to play large roles in establishing safe spaces in their communities because of the relevance of the problem to their everyday lives. Participants emphasized the importance of building networks of the following allies and partners for securing local environments: social workers and field organizers; port authorities, shipping companies, and harbor management to prevent, track, intercept, and police human trafficking; politically important people or embassies that have clout over local authorities; and those who are witness or economically affected by the violence.

Several participants highlighted the success of involving local business owners whose sales or customers may decline as a result of violence or negative perceptions of the neighborhood. By reporting and mapping accounts of harassment, distributing whistles, or posting signs or symbols such as the gay pride rainbow flag in their storefronts, local businesses can deter threats on community members and promote inclusive, safe spaces. Other participants also mentioned the success of outreach days and published community responses to violence in which locals raise awareness of and condemn issues that threaten the safety of their neighborhoods. Community watch groups that involve and empower local residents via trainings, alternative learning, and parenting support also help investment in community safety and local governance. Finally, policy change can transform risky environments for all people; one participant stressed how policies that improve worker’s rights and combat exploitation of workers could create dramatically safer environments for working-class populations. One participant shared that when local and state governments ignored a pro-domestic worker’s rights law, seeking assistance from the international level helped pass the law that protects exploited communities.

With respect to those endangered by “horizontal” violence, partnerships, accompaniment, and refugee programs serve as valuable modes of protection. One participant shared that by building relationships with powerful institutions such as universities, activists and leaders at-risk have been able to secure visas and refuge in other communities or countries. Such activists or leaders may experience increased security by traveling with a safeguard. With the support of physical accompaniment, individuals threatened by politically or economically powerful people can continue their high-risk work in peace and travel freely. One participant explained that accompaniment organizations benefit from honest communication with authorities to prevent conflict, and also from holding back from openly criticizing states or national campaigns as to avoid barriers to travel or accompaniment in the future.

Although “safe space” work may have good intentions, it is important to consider that people deemed “in need” of protection may in fact be uninterested or resistant of protection policies imposed on them. Participants stressed that staff and participants of safe spaces should be culturally sensitive, held to codes of conduct appropriate for the community and specific circumstances, and should foster self-empowerment and independence.

Reflection: What have you learned? What can others learn from your experience?

One participant shared that he learned that many different types of protection exist and pertain to different individuals or groups with specific circumstances, and another recognized the value in new social media technologies, volunteers, and allies. Participants remain curious about future initiatives and mechanisms that can prevent vulnerable people from resorting to shelters, rehabilitation and reintegration for those who were forced to flee their communities, and how to locate and identify “vulnerable” individuals and populations. Several participants responded by describing the solution of “child friendly” villages that promote education, combat the cycles of child labor and trafficking, and empower both children and their communities. Know-your-rights trainings, government attention and assistance, and partnerships and allies have aided many organizers that strive to promote safe spaces for at-risk individuals and communities.


Conversation Leaders

GhidaAnani's picture
Ghida Anani
ABAAD-Resource Center for Gender Equality
Linda Macktaby's picture
Linda Macktaby
Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue
Sara Sabri's picture
Sara Sabri
Ari_Regino's picture
Alfred Ari G. Regino
Visayan Forum Foundation Inc.
edyicorn's picture
Elisabeth Dyvik
ICORN International Cities of Refuge Network
sidd joag's picture
sidd joag
Stuart Bowman's picture
Stuart Bowman
Peace Brigades International