Updated: Mar 24
“As a country, we find ourselves in the midst of not one, but two, devastating epidemics...”,
is how President Cyril Ramaphosa described Gender-Based Violence (GBV) in South Africa, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The sad reality is that Covid-19 has exposed, in a way that can no longer be ignored, that South African women do not have sufficient safe spaces of refuge in a time of crisis.
How can we respond to this?
We can begin by designing out the stigma attached to shelters for survivors of GBV by constructing healing environments in its stead. This paradigm shift has already begun in hospital and hospice facilities, yet little information exists on how to design to heal from GBV, a plague that affects more and more people everyday. Thus the following article was compiled to provide guidelines on how a women's shelter can be reimagined as a SHEE (Safe Healing and Empowering Environment) Centre. This type of space must be considered from a feminist perspective, in which feminist space is defined as space that thoughtfully empowers women in a healing and safe environment.
Image: Floor Plans
The following 10 guidelines provide a benchmark to begin:
1. Site selection: Where possible SHEE Centres should be located within a residential context to support the reintegration of women into society. Other key factors to consider:
It is helpful to be close to first responders like a police station, hospital or clinic.
It is essential to be within walking distance to a public transport route to allow women to travel as required.
Parking to the centre should not be visible from the road to prevent a woman's cars from being easily identified.
The centre should be located within a school district to cater for women who enter the facility with their children.
2. Spatial Programming: The centre should be designed to foster a deeper psychological experience of healing. Spaces that encourage this are:
Courtyards and gardens to allow a connection to nature,
Exercise, yoga or meditation rooms to create a connection to self,
Space to make spiritual or religious connections,
Individual and group counselling rooms,
Training rooms for upskilling,
Informal social spaces for when interaction is sought out,
Spaces for solitude or reflection such as ad-hoc alcoves, and
Staff administration facilities.
3. Room typologies: Women can spend months in SHEE Centres and thus an appropriate amount of domesticity is required to respond to these unique living conditions.
Entry: Women are at their most vulnerable when entering a SHEE Centre as they would have likely had a recent GBV encounter. Here it is recommended that they have private rooms to foster a sense of control over themselves and their living spaces. These units should be the most private and concealed within the facility.
Communal living: By this stage women are more comfortable interacting and connecting with others. Flexible and multi-use space becomes important to cater to as many women as possible.
Reintegration: At this stage women are almost ready to move out of the centre. These units can be designed as self catering units, with access to communal space, to allow a greater sense of independence.
Staff accommodation: The facility will need 24 hour access and therefore 1/2 staff members will need to live on site. These can be private self-catering units.
4. The Entrance: The centre should have two entrances which are always monitored. Women entering the shelter for the first time, visitors, and staff should use the main entrance as this entrance should identify the building. This can be somewhat concealed through a courtyard or even a side door. The second entrance should be completely inconspicuous to allow women already living at the facility to enter/ exit anonymously.
5. Clothing depot: Many women enter SHEE Centres at the last minute with the clothes on their backs as their only possessions. As a result, the facility should have an on-site clothes depot for women and children.
6. Children: SHEE Centres are designed for women and should not exclude women who have children. Thus the centre should be 'child friendly' which could include playgrounds and after school facilities.
7. Support staff: The centre should have an on duty night nurse to accommodate women who could not enter during business hours.
8. Passive design strategies: Natural daylight can become a powerful emotive tool as it possesses transcendent qualities which can create a celestial experience. Other strategies such as cross ventilation, shading, insulation can also be incorporated to respond to specific human conditions and required comfort levels.
9. Materiality: Following natural light as an emotive tool, materiality is clearly important. Important points to consider:
how to create a connection to the outdoors without excessive big glass openings, and
movable screens give women a sense of control but allowing them to decide when it is open or shut.
10. Actual and perceived security: As previously mentioned, women who enter this type of facility are incredibly vulnerable and need to be safe. Actual security is vital such as controlled access, panic buttons, emergency response teams, etc. However, as a healing environment it is counter productive to be in an environment that feels locked up and like a prison. The balance between actual and perceived security should be prioritised in the design.