How are these safe spaces created and used? Share your experience.

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How are these safe spaces created and used? Share your experience.

To help start the conversation and keep the focus of this discussion thread, please consider and respond to the following questions:

  • How are these safe spaces created? What was the process? How is the target community involved in creating the space?
  • What allies did you engage in creating this space? How do these allies help to sustain the space?
  • How are these spaces used? Who is the audience?
  • What challenges did you face?
  • What resources were useful?

Share your experiences, thoughts, ideas and questions by adding a comment below or replying to existing comments!

For help on how to participate in this conversation, please check out these online instructions.


Visayan Forum partners with Port Authority to protect victims

In the first discussion thread, Ari mentioned the Visayan Forum's (VF) on-site sheltering facilities:

Our transit hub strategy ensures that potential victims of human trafficking are intercepted and rescued on-site through a multi-sectoral task force. It is complemented by an on-site sheltering facility. This is crucial because it is at the ports and airports where trafficking victims are last seen. Therefore a strategic choke point located in these very areas help stop trafficking.

We have further documented this example in a tactic titled: Building allies with government institutions and port communities to prevent human trafficking and protect victims. There are so many great things to point out from this example, but we decided to focus on VF's unique partnership with the Port Authority. Here is information from that tactic that is relavent to this discussion:

The Philippines is known to be among the leading sources of migrant workers worldwide. The economy is heavily dependent on the eight million Filipinos working abroad, as are the economies of the countries where these migrant workers are employed. Tens (even hundreds) of thousand of these migrants are trafficked, lured by promises of a better life in the urban centers. Traffickers clandestinely organize their transport operations via different ports and land routes in the Philippines. Worldwide recruitment relies on intricate processes that start in far-flung communities. Traffickers operate in underground networks with strong connections to corrupt public officials and transport operators.

VF worked to address these challenges by building cooperation with the Philippine Ports Authority and Manila International Airport Authority to run eight unique 24-hour facilities. At these ports, VF has also organized and built the capacity of the Anti-Trafficking Task Force composed of law enforcement officials like the coast guard, maritime police, stevedoring workers group, and private companies. VF provides regular trainings to private shipping companies and the shipping crews to help in the process of identification of possible victims onboard their vessels and in the ticket counters. Private companies and donors have also provided resources for the establishment of the safe-haven facilities. This initiative was also replicated in airports in cooperation with the Manila International Airport Authority.

These safe-haven halfway houses are located in strategic seaports and airports which assist VF in documenting cases of trafficking within the country and cases bound for abroad. In the halfway houses, teams of social workers and field organizers provide a wide variety of services including:

  • Emergency temporary shelter towards reintegration;
  • Informational assistance about travel, employment and possible support networks;
  • Quick referral of cases, including legal remediation;
  • Telephone hotline counseling;
  • Regular outreach for stranded passengers;
  • Training and advocacy to port community members such as the police, coast guard, shipping crew, porters and security guards.

In its ongoing relations with the Philippine Ports Authority and other governmental institutions, VF has taken tangible steps to prevent human trafficking and apprehend traffickers. As a result of these alliances, VF has been able to document 12,800 cases of trafficking and/or attempted trafficking and 68,000 migrants have received services in the program to date.

What other kinds of partnerships have been successful in creating safe spaces? Who are your allies? How did you identify them? Share your examples and experiences!

on partnerships


Thank you Kristin for highlighting VF's work.

This innovation did not come easy. As in every intervention, a careful study of the field that you work in is necessary. One must, at times, think like a perpetrator and ask questions such as (in the fight against human trafficking) "what route can I best take my victims through in a way that they will be invisible to law enforcers", "who can I enlist as my accomplices that are strategically positioned to let my trade prosper", "how can I hide myself in the process", etc. These are the questions we constantly have to ask because as we continue to innovate our interventions, so do traffickers, and they have all the means because they have the money.

Therefore VF found it necessary to involve all the actors at play, from shipping companies to law enforcement authorities. Orientation sessions and trainings are conducted to conscientize everyone and engage them in the work to end trafficking.

I think, the best allies that one can enlist in the cause are those strategically positioned to either help stop or help make the problem flourish. It is only imperative that you get to them first before the other side does.

It is also important to ensure that you have a wide distribution of allies, multi-sectoral networks are good approaches to mobilization because you have everyone involved (and this also helps the work become cost-efficient because you only capitalize on the inherent position, expertise and resources of the groups enlisted).

We are fortunate that both the government and private sector have taken a very strong stand against human trafficking, hence the partnership we have been able to develop.

How to find the best allies - thoughts and resources

Thanks for sharing this behind-the-scenes perspective on how this partnership idea came about. I thought that this was a very intriguing contribution:

I think, the best allies that one can enlist in the cause are those strategically positioned to either help stop or help make the problem flourish. It is only imperative that you get to them first before the other side does.

I hadn't really thought of it this way - but your theory makes sense. It's those that are right in the middle, who have the power/position to impact the issue that you're working on in some way (positive or negative) that you want to engage as allies.

There are a number of resources that can help defenders identify the right allies and targets for their tactics:

Please share other thoughts, questions and resources on finding good allies to create safe spaces for communities at risk!

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

Thank you Kristin.

Thank you Kristin.

In VF, our models of intervention are always imbued with multi-sectoral partnership. We thrive on strategic partnerships for all of our endeavours.

We have carefully studied human trafficking as a reality, a phenomenon, and as an underground business. This has allowed us to identify what actually happens in a trafficking situation - from the recruitment process to the deployment and exploitation process.

And as the situation transpires, we see different actors at play who can effectively stop the crime as it happens.

For example, in a trafficking situation, transfer or transport of the victim is expected. Therefore, we found it strategic to partner with transport groups, to provide them with the necessary skills to detect and address trafficking situations. Reporting and refferal mechanisms are made known and available to them. One of our celebrated cases is of a victim who was rescued because a security guard detected "red flag" situations (such as the girl being too young but traveling unaccompanied, the girl seemingly bewildered and lost, and when asked was not able to provide top of the mind answers as to her destination and purpose for travel). 

Our partnership with shipping companies and the harbor management have given us authority to conduct port roundings and profiling of traveling children and women as a mandatory security protocol. The stewards are sometimes the ones who report that there are suspicious groups traveling that may potentially be trafficked.

Apart from this, our study has effectively allowed us to identify what route traffickers take in transporting their victims. Hence we were able to determine what ports and airports we should focus our work on. For example, we have identified Zamboanga city as a major transit and exit point for trafficking to Malaysia, so we set up operations there too, and since then, our number of intercepted and rescued has nearly doubled up.

You see, if these actors are not engaged in the cause, they will be a big loss because they are the last persons to ever set eyes on the victims. 

Choosing allies

PBI has deliberately chosen to build up an international support network of politically influential people and organisations. This will be different for each country in which we work as, for example, the Spanish Embassy is more significant in Guatemala than in Indonesia.

We use this international network to put pressure on authorities , but only rarely. Usually we find that it is the threat of such pressure that deters attacks on those we accompany. This also means that we don't ask very much of our allies so they don't get weary of our constant requests for help.

Short film on ICORN

Here is a short (6 min) film about ICORN. It gives some quick insights to our work.


Political challenges in creating int'l safe spaces

Great video, Elisabeth - thanks for sharing! It sounds like a big challenge for ICORN is working with governments to get permission to bring in persecuted writers from other countries. I wonder if other practitioners reading this conversation have similar challenges (freeDimensional, Scholar Rescue Fund, etc).

Can those of you who create safe spaces in a country for which the person/community at risk is in another country, please share more about the challenge of working with governments, getting visas, etc? Ellaborate on the challenge itself, and share ways that you have addressed these challenges.


- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builders

International safe space in the UK

York University in the UK runs a Protective Fellowship Scheme for threatened human rights defenders for 3-6 month periods. So they can simply get a UK visa for people coming on this programme (I think!)

York and other universities

Yes, we work with York and refer people to them as well, although they are not part of ICORN. In the UK Norwich is our only member city, and visa problems is a big issue in the UK.

There are other universities around the world who do this type of hosting/residencies as well. Some as part of SAR, others as individual initiatives, like York. Many focus on the safety of the individual, others have academic criteria as well.  Here in Norway students organisations are working to try to expand such programmes to include also students, but I do not know of any that do.

We have listed some of the grants and fellowships on or our web page, and would be happy to add more so please let me know!  (I am aware that York is missing.)


Partnering w/ shop owners to create neighborhood safe zones

I'm very pleased to share another great example of this tactic, which includes a creative partnership with local shop owners! This tactic example is being used in neighborhoods in Cairo, coordinated by Harassmap (participating in this conversation):

In Cairo, Harassmap partners with local shop owners to create “safe zones” against sexual harassment.   Harassmap uses a visual mapping platform to gather information from citizens about sexual harassment incidents taking place in the city.  They use this information to determine the neighborhoods with the highest number of incidents.  Within these neighborhoods, Harassmap finds local shop owners to invite as partners in their “safe zone” initiative.  Harassmap volunteers then visit shop owners and have friendly chats with them on how intervention with sexual harassment incidents would help bring more people to their shops.  The interested shop owners agree to display a poster that says “Catch a harasser: Safe Zone” and intervene when they witness an incident of sexual harassment.

How they implemented this tactic:

Harassmap utilizes existing technologies:  the Ushahidi mapping platform and Frontline SMS for receiving and organizing SMS messages.  A woman harassed on a street in Cairo can send a text message with her location and the type of harassment to which she was subjected.  Alternatively, she could log on to the project’s website , and report the incident. This report then appears on an interactive online map that shows the number of incidents reported in each specific area.

Harassmap identifies the areas with the highest number of incidents reported and reaches out to people in those communities. They have chosen to focus on local shop owners because their business is impacted negatively from high level of harassment incidents.  With the help of these shop owners, Harassmap establishes what they referred to as “safe zones against sexual harassment”, whereby shop owners agree to display a poster that says “Catch a harasser: Safe Zone” and intervene when they witness an incident of sexual harassment.

To raise awareness about the project, the Harassmap team organizes promotional campaigns around Cairo with stickers, flyers and public events.  On July 15, 2012, they held an open-mic session to allow victims of sexual harassment to share their stories with an engaged audience.

Read more about this tactic on our website.

What other examples of creative partnership are out there? How have you leveraged those partnerships to create safe spaces for communities? How are you using new technologies to create safe spaces? Share your examples!

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

Sydney Anti Violence Project (AVP) and rainbow flags

Hi Kristin,

very excited to hear of this initiative in Cairo - I imagine that it links in with the various anti-harrassment street patrol groups I've read about elsewhere.

This neighborhood safe zones project reminds me of an initive of the Anti Violence Project in Sydney in the early 1990's which was working to reduce the high level of homophobic attacks on gays, lesbians and trans people in the area.  They too partnered with local cafes, shops and bars to create safety refuges for people who feel threatened, provided staff training and distributed Rainbow flag stickers for the front windows of the shops - to designate that shop as a safe and gay friendly.  

It was part of the Whistle Project which saw thousands of whistles being distributed and community education about blowing it when and threats occurred as a deterrance and intervention. 

The initiatve may have developed in the US earlier. But the Safe Place Program is still going in Sydney and will be roling out a new Safe Place logo this year


Very interesting, thanks for sharing! I love how low-tech the use of whistles is. As long as there is a community around it, that kind of approach could be used almost anywhere.

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

Thank you Kristin for

Thank you Kristin for mentioning our harassmap safe zones model, we have outreachdays made by our volunteers as they go to their nighborhoods and do outreach to spread information about sexual harassment , what is it? why it happens? how could people speak up againist harassers and how to creat safe areas and harassment free zones. we believe that we as a community can restore the safety in our streets. and our initiative is depending on volunteers beside our core team. as well as we partner with many NGOs who are working on human rights and women rights.

we are working on expanding all over Egypt and to repeat our model in other countires.

Did you borrow this tactic from somewhere else?

I'm so glad you could join this conversation, Sara! I am curious to know if Harassmap borrowed/adapted this tactic from other places. Above, Anthony Kelly mentions that there are a few other similar projects that are working to stop sexual harassment in neighborhoods. Did you learn about their experiences before adapting this tactic to Cairo neighborhoods? (At New Tactics, we love to hear about human rights orgs learning tactics from other human rights orgs!)

Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

Using people's interests for positive change

I really like the idea of using the businesses' economic interests to reduce harassment. This seems like a really productive way to think about creating new initiatives or building new alliances. Rather than just saying "harassment is bad".

Brief overview of the PBI model

We "simply"(!) send teams of international volunteers to accompany people whose work leads them to face threats from their state.

This allows them to work more freely, to engage in work that would otherwse be suppressed or travel more widely. We don't tell them what to do as they simply request our presence when they feel they need it. Sometimes we may accompany someone 24 hours a day for periods of time. More often we spend time at their offices or go with them when they travel within the country.

We are very open with the authorities, meetign them regularly to tell them who we are accompanying and providing exact details of when we are going to do an accompaniment. We find this effective in preventing any "accidents" or misunderstandings.

A slightly unusual aspect of our work is that we rarely publicly criticise states or get involved in campaigns. We find this allows us to have access to areas that many other international NGOs find more difficult to enter.

Here's a short film

I'll do a separate post later about challenges.

Stopping interpersonal violence

Whilst PBI and others work to intervene in state-sanctioned 'vertical' violence protecting targeted individuals and communities  - there's also a plethora of inititives that work to intervene in interpersonal or 'horizontal' forms of violence - sexual assault, street harrassment and violence - (although the term 'horizontal' doesn't take into account the power differentials in gender based violence.)  

There seems to be an evergrowing network of anti-street harrassment groups - 

I'd particulary like to draw people's attantion, though, to the Story Telling and Organising Project of Creative Interventions in the US.

Its role is to collect people's stories of creating safety and collective, community based responses to violence. Its full of very inspiring stuff and the new publications - Revolution Starts at Home and the site is full of resources, toolkist etc.

Well worth a look.

Creative Interventions have a wonderful vision:

“Our goal is not ending violence. It is liberation.” Beth Richie

The vision of Creative Interventions is based upon liberation — the positive, life-affirming, transformative potential within communities.

All activities and projects of Creative Interventions are meant to unearth and build upon the often hidden and devalued knowledge and skills expressed by generations of people who have courageously defied violence and created new spaces for safety and self-determination.


Today's challenge

Like I said in my other post, today I had the opportunity to join a lightning interception and rescue operation at one of the ports where our organization operates, together with our President Ma. Cecilia Oebanda and a team of our Social Workers, in coordination with the task force against trafficking operating in the area.

I would just like to share a challenge we faced today, and in many other times, that really stressed us out.

How do you keep someone safe if the person does not want to be kept safe, especially if the person is a child?

Today we intercepted about 15 potentially trafficked minors. 8 of them we brought to our shelter, while the rest, we had to discharge to their "relatives" who picked them up.

Of the group we were able to rescue, two were extremely difficult to extract and bring to our on-site facility because they did not want to come with us. And because we do not have police power, we of course cannot protect them. (Insert: this is why it is good to have a strong and wide array of allies and partners, because in the end, we were able to secure them because the port authority which has policing powers can legitimately take them into custody, and later endorse them to us)

You see, the minors had all of the signs of trafficking written all over what they have shared with us while we were just informally interviewing them. But they were in touch with a "relative" on the phone, who was to pick them up, and this person gave them instructions to never at any circumstance come with us. to cut the story short, three persons appeared and presented themselves as cousin, employer, and driver, but their stories didn't match up. My point is, even when the children were clearly vulnerable and were fully apprised of the dangers that can befall them in the situation, they refused to go. We stayed under the heat of the sun for what seemed like hours talking to the 3 persons whose stories didn't add up, and to the two kids who were already teary-eyed and who were begging us to just let them go.

Even when my heart was breaking from their pleas, and my rational-thinking was caving in to the veiled threats thrown my way, I just couldn't let them go with those three people because the "red flags" were blinding. 

I guess it is essential to continually revisit why you're creating safe spaces - that you're not doing it to save those who want to and those who need to, but more importantly those who do not know yet that they need to be saved. You just have to be creative in your ways, because they can be your toughest challenge.

safe spaces goes beyond a policy on a piece of paper....

Establishing safe spaces goes beyond a policy on a piece of paper taped to the wall in the office. Creating "safe spaces" means creating safe atmosphere where target group feel free to express themselves without fear, understand and are free to exercise their rights, and are not afraid to report their rights being violated.

safe spaces in brief are:

  • Free from emotional and physical threat
  • Private and confidential
  • Culturally sensitive
  • Conveniently located and familiar to programme participants
  • Ensure self-development and self-confidence

Part of creating a safe space means developing clear guidelines and codes of conduct for all staff, as well as participants. In addition there must be clear and accessible processes and procedures if these policies and codes are violated.

On the impact of policy formulation to creating safe spaces


I agree with you Ghiaad, indeed creating safe spaces goes beyond policy-making because the execution of the policy is where the bottleneck actually is. However, in the context with which I shared a perspective, I believe policy, especially a national piece of legislation is a highly potent tool for creating safe spaces. You see, for a sector whose realities have never been taken into public opinion and concern with as much favor and focus as necessary has allowed the continued perpetuation of human rights violations with impunity... For decades. This is modern-day slavery. Domestic workers for example, do not enjoy basic human rights such as the right to social protection (because as workers, there is no mechanism specifically accorded for them for this purpose even when there are millions of them in this sector). Because of this, most of them incur debts to support medical ande educational needs, debts that they are not even able to pay within their lifetime, which again brings them to another form of slavery - debt bondage. They do not enjoy decent, safe and humane working conditions because no standards have been set. Domestic workers continue to languish in dangerous work because they are not given decent sleeping quarters, right nutrition, and humane working hours. Many of them sleep on floors or are cramped together in a tiny unventilated room, many take only a meal a day and at times, these meals are not even safe because they are leftovers, and most of them work from 4am to 1am. They are not paid a decent wage. Many of them are paid about 50 dollars a month, sometimes, even far less, in a highly urbanized city where the cost of living is about 5-10 dollars a day. Most of the time, they are not even paid their wages. They are not given access to education. Being a domestic worker in the Philippines is almost always a life sentence for many. Somehow, they are not able to finish even basic education because of the working conditions, and unbelievably low wages, among others. Worse, because domestic work is done inside the household, what happens inside is kept from the public eye. As such, abuses - psycho-emotional, physical, and even sexual, continue to occur with impunity. Of course we have basic laws against abusive conduct, but the uniqueness of the work situation where the abuse happens merits a specific policy, which has been absent for ages. Therefore, a strong platform that effectively protects and advances all these basic human rights and more is quite necessary in order to specifically mandate the government from top to bottom to create machineries to specifically address this situation and allocate funds therefor. This platform benchmarks conditions of work, standardizes wages, provides mandate for social protection, and best of all, a structure where the concerns of an unseen sector can be addressed pro-actively through a local government registration system. Ay deviation from this policy will be at the pain of penalties and punishment.  I agree that the policy will have to be effectively implemented in order for it to achieve its purpose of creating the safe space for work, but I also think that the policies such as those that sets benchmarks for programmatic service delivery by government, equalizes relations between parties, standardizes conditions and atmospheres especially those in known invisible and dangerous situations, and enumerates obligations of duty bearers, among others - ensures a safe space. I think Policy formulation is a huge part of the equation of creating safe spaces. Because at the end of the day, the critical questions that almost always remain unanswered and therefore hampers the process of creating the spaces, are: where do you and how do you access the rights that are at the center of the purpose of creating the safe space, and who do you access it from. Hence a piece of legislation that specifically answers and addresses these questions together with its underlying issues such as resources, structures, and mechanisms for rights-claiming is necessary. An enabling law that comprehensively obligates duty-bearers in a given social concern will establish a safe space for rights-holders.

A couple of possible challenges


I would imagine that one challenge for all of us is how to avoid having people become completely dependent on the safe spaces that we provide in order that they can still live in the larger world. Perhaps also that enabling people to reintegrate back into the larger world frees up space for us to work with new people.

This was certainly a challenge at times when I was a field worker with PBI. Some people we accompanied would, when feeling threatened, regularly ask us to stay with them 24 hours a day when this was perhaps not completely necessary and would also affect our ability to work with other people and organisations. Usually we were able to gradually reduce the level of accompaniment with certain people but do this slowly over time with their full involvement.

Unintentional influences?

PBI aim is to simply allow people to do their work more freely. We don't get involved in their work or tell them what to do. However, our working practices and safety protocols can have a real impact on the way that people we accompany operate. For example, for security reasons, PBI field teams I worked in would not travel at night or on public transport. This limited the extent to which we could accompany certain organisations since they would regularly do both of these things. It led them to perhaps favour certain types of work where we could accompany them.

I wonder if other attempts to create safe spaces have similar unintentional consequences?