Victims' Rights and Responding to Victims' Needs

Last Updated March 2015

Victims’ rights

  • Legislation should include a statement of the rights of complainant/survivors. It must promote complainant/survivor safety, agency, and assistance, and prevent the re-victimization of the complainant/survivor. It should remove barriers that may prevent them from seeking safety, such as concerns about child custody, access to shelters, and legal aid. (See: Report of the Intergovernmental Expert Group Meeting to review and update the Model Strategies and Practical Measures on the Elimination of Violence against Women in the Field of Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, Bangkok, 23-25 March 2009; and Combating violence against women: minimum standards for support services (2008))

  • For example, the Model Charter for the Rights of Widows outlines several rights for widows, including:

  • the right to inherit from their husbands’ estate, whether intestate or testate;

  • the right to remarry and marry someone of her own choice;

  • the right of daughters to inherit on an equal basis with sons;

  • the right to free legal aid in inheritance, property and personal status claims;

  • the right to same employment opportunities as other women and men;

  • the right to protection of themselves and their children from sexual exploitation, prostitution and trafficking;

  • appropriate financial aid as needed to send their children to school.

  • Also, Spain’s Organic Act on Integrated Protection Measures against Gender Violence contains a guarantee

of victim’s rights. Article 17 of the Act notes that:

All women suffering gender violence, regardless of their origin, religion or any other personal or social condition or particular, are guaranteed the rights recognised herein.

The information, integrated social assistance and legal assistance to gender violence victims envisaged in this chapter shall help give real and effective expression to their constitutional rights to physical and moral integrity, freedom, security and equality and non discrimination on the grounds of sex.

  • The statement of rights should inform the complainant/survivor of legal remedies (such as the order for protection and ex parte order for protection) and the support services offered by the state.


Illustrative Example: In the Indian State of Rajasthan, a court ordered closed-circuit television surveillance of a home in which a widow claimed she was being abused. The 72-year old widow went to court to gain protection from abuse by her son and daughter-in-law, who she claimed were assaulting her and trying to evict her from the home. The court ordered that the son pay for the cameras and their installation, that the police monitor the footage on a regular basis, and that the son deposit funds into a specified account to ensure that his mother could lead a life with dignity. See: Narayan Bareth, Rajasthan court orders CCTV to protect widow, BBC News, May 1, 2013.


  • Legislation should ensure that widows have access to comprehensive information about their rights and enforcement mechanisms. Laws should ensure women have the opportunity to fully participate in these enforcement mechanisms, as well as in planning, administration and implementation of land, inheritance, and property systems and other legal reforms and projects. See: Section on Public Awareness. Legislation should provide for services for survivors/complainants. Because widows are vulnerable to various forms of maltreatment, including property and inheritance issues, family law issues, and violence, legislation should provide for a coordinated community response. See: Section on Coordinated Community Response. Legislation should state that survivor services are not conditional upon filing a report with the police, or upon the survivor’s decision to testify or to work with prosecution regarding the case.  See:  Gender-Based Violence Laws in Sub-Saharan Africa, p. 44.


Promising Practice: Drafters should consider supporting service initiatives that provide survivor/complainants multiple resources in a single location. A centralized location should provide widows with access to law enforcement, child protection personnel, sexual assault and other trauma counselors, economic assistance and other social services, as well as paralegals or other advocates to provide assistance regarding inheritance, property, and family rights. For example, the Fourth Judicial District Court of Hennepin County in Minnesota, United States, established a Domestic Abuse Service Center to serve as a centralized location for “people who are victims of violence caused by a family or household member,” including actual or threatened violence.  The Service Center is staffed by District Court personnel who can assist a victim complete the paperwork necessary for temporary legal protection from an abuser. The Service Center also houses other city, county and advocacy organization staff, who are available to help victims of domestic violence with other legal and related needs.  Hennepin County’s Service Center was the first such center of its kind in the United States when it was started in 1994; it has since been replicated in several other locations.  Such centers reduce bureaucratic and other barriers to women seeking protection from abusers, including addressing the difficulty and confusion associated with traveling to several different offices for needed services.


Basic victim services

  • Legislation should provide funding for and mandate establishment of comprehensive and integrated support services to assist survivors of widow maltreatment. It should state that all services for women survivors of violence are to provide adequate support to their children. Also, the location of such services should be such that gives both urban and rural populations equitable access to the services. (See: UN Handbook, Section 3.6.1) Such services should be economically, geographically and linguistically accessible, as well as gender-sensitive.

  • Legislation should require a free, 24-hour hotline that is accessible from anywhere in the country and staffed by persons trained in maltreatment of widows issues. (See: Crisis Centers and Hotlines, Stop VAW, The Advocates for Human Rights) The hotline should be multilingual to accommodate local dialects. States may want to consider establishing online counseling services and information, but should ensure they provide information on and mechanisms to preserve the privacy of the information seeker’s website searches. (See: Electronic Privacy Information Center) for suggestions on protecting online privacy. Counselors should be trained on the dynamics of widow maltreatment, property rights, inheritance rights, sexual assault, domestic violence, HIV/AIDS prevention, and deprivation of children. Hotline staff should maintain a list of referrals to other service providers that specialize in these issues and can provide further assistance to survivor/complainants.

  • Legislation should provide for one shelter or refuge for every 10,000 people, providing safe emergency accommodation, qualified counseling and assistance in finding long-term accommodation. Widows facing eviction, widow inheritance, widow cleansing and other human rights violations should be able to access these shelters. Legislation should provide for specialized and appropriate services for widows within these shelters or establish specialized shelters for them. Shelter accommodation should take into account the particular needs of widows: they may be living with HIV/AIDS, lost their marital home, land and property, been wrongfully deprived of their children, or have suffered sexual assault. Legislation should provide support for these shelters and ensure shelters or another provider offer counseling and assistance in securing long-term accommodation. (See: Shelters and Safehouses, StopVAW, The Advocates for Human Rights)

  • Legislation should provide for efficient and timely provision of financial assistance to survivors/complainants to meet their needs. Discriminatory property and inheritance systems mean that widows may be denied the resources they have used to care for themselves and their children throughout their marriage. Long-term assistance may include skills and vocational training and access to financial credit to aid widows in earning a livelihood. These programs should be structured in a way to meet the particular needs of survivors of different forms of violence.

  • Legislation should guarantee women’s right to assert a legal claim independent of a male and ensure her testimony and evidence bears equal weight with that of a man’s. Legislation should provide the survivor/complainant’s right to free legal aid in all legal proceedings, including inheritance and property claims and claims for compensation or restitution, as well as free court support, such as accompaniment and/or representation by an appropriate service or intermediary, and where necessary, free access to qualified and objective interpretation. Laws should also protect the survivor/ complainant’s right to decide whether to appear in court or submit evidence via alternative means, enable victims who testify in court to give evidence in a way that does not require them to confront the defendant, provide protection to the victim within the court infrastructure, require the victim to testify only as many times as is necessary, request closed courtroom proceedings where constitutionally permissible, and impose a gag on all publicity regarding individuals involved in the case with appropriate remedies for non-compliance. For example, the Justice for Widows and Orphans Project in Zambia has created support groups for widows and orphans, which includes training them as paralegals.

  • Legislation should mandate access to free-of charge health care for immediate injuries and long-term care including sexual and reproductive health care, emergency contraception and HIV prophylaxis in cases of rape. Widows may suffer from immediate and long-term injuries. Critical to any health care response is confidentiality. Health care providers, like advocates, must ensure that women know that the information they share, such as a positive HIV status, will be kept safe. Drafters should adopt legislation, regulations and other measures to protect the privacy and confidentiality of people living with HIV. (Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS, UNGASS 2001) Legislation should state that require health care providers to respect the privacy and personal information of its patients and ensure that such information is not used or disclosed for purposes other than for which it was collected or consented to. UNESCO Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights, Article 9. Personnel who are authorized to access HIV-related information should undergo appropriate training and be held responsible for protecting confidentiality. UNAIDS has created interim Guidelines on Protecting the Confidentiality and Security of HIV Information that outline proposed principles on personal information of patients living with HIV/AIDS. See: UNAIDS, Interim Guidelines on Protecting the Confidentiality and Security of HIV Information: Proceedings from a Workshop, 15-17 May 2006, Geneva Switzerland, Section 5.1; Confidentiality and Support, StopVAW, The Advocates for Human Rights.

The Noor Al Hussein Foundation’s Institute of Family Health (IFH) has developed a “Training Manual for Private Health Care Providers in Management of Victims of Violence against Women.”  The manual provides information on detection, diagnosis, and referral of victims to support services.  According to the IFH, the guide is the first of its kind in the region to be available in Arabic and is already being used by medical professionals at nine private hospitals in Jordan. See: Creating a Health Care Response, StopVAW, The Advocates for Human Rights.

The Daphne project has produced Breaking the Taboo: Violence against older women in families-recognizing and acting. The project has made available short brochures on how to recognize and address violence as well as a manual for health and social service professionals focused on violence against older women. Brochures are available in English, German, Italian, French, Bulgarian, Finnish, Dutch, Polish, Portugese, and Slovenian. The training manual can be requested via email and is available in English, German, Bulgarian, Portugese, and Slovenian.

See also the Health Module for more information.

Right to compensation

  • Drafters should take steps to address the issue of compensation. Legislation should provide survivors of widow maltreatment with a civil tort remedy for claims of assault; battery; intentional or reckless infliction of emotional distress; forced eviction; intentional interference with child custody, visitation or parent-child relationship; conversion; trespass; and fraud.

  • Criminal laws should allow sentences to include an order of compensation and restitution from the perpetrator to the victim. Laws should state that while compensation is a punitive element in violence against women cases, it does not substitute for other punishments, such as imprisonment. (See: UN Handbook, p. 52) In cases where the offender cannot pay the victim compensation, laws should provide for state-sponsored or other compensation for victims who have sustained significant bodily injury or impairment of physical or mental health as a result of the maltreatment. See: Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power, Paras. 12-13; See: UN Handbook.


Illustrative Examples:

France: Under the Framework Justice Act (2002), police are obligated to inform victims of their right to apply for compensation and seek a civil remedy. Also, police can register compensation claims on behalf of victims, thus eliminating the requirement for victims to go to court. (See: Non-criminal Remedies for Crime Victims, Council of Europe, 2009) France has instituted a state fund for compensation for victims of violent crimes, whereby victims may apply to the State Fund for Victims of Crime. Criminal justice bodies aid the fund by recouping funds from perpetrators. See Reform Act 1990.

India: India is considering several expansions to its program providing for pensions for widows who live below the poverty line, including decreasing the minimum age for collecting a pension from 40 to 18.  Such reforms have the potential to provide security for a larger percentage of widows and decrease the necessity to enter into situations that may result in maltreatment.

Right to adequate housing

  • Legislation should provide for and support the development of long-term, subsidized housing for survivors/complainants. Such housing should be located in a safe community without fear of victimization or retaliation.

  • Legislation should recognize the right to adequate housing and incorporate these standards into domestic laws. The Center on Housing Rights and Evictions has outlined several elements necessary to realize the right to adequate housing:

  • Security of Tenure: protection against arbitrary forced eviction, harassment and threats that exists independent of any relationship to a male.

  • Availability of Services, Materials, Facilities and Infrastructure: access to potable water, energy for cooking, heating and lighting, sanitation, washing facilities, food storage, refuse disposal, drainage and emergency services. Proximity to these amenities is especially important for women who bear multiple household and childrearing tasks.

  • Affordability: The value paid for a household’s housing must not be excessive to where it jeopardizes or compromises the resident’s ability to meet and satisfy other basic needs. Legislation should take into account the economic needs of women and widows, who may require credit and financing assistance to afford housing.

  • Habitability: Adequate space and protection against the elements, other health threats, structural dangers, as well as domestic violence.

  • Accessibility: Guarantee of priority considerations in housing for vulnerable populations, including the elderly, children, people with disabilities, and people living with HIV/AIDS. In countries where widow maltreatment is problematic or women are traditionally subordinated, legislation should include widows and women, particularly those living with disabilities or HIV/AIDS as a disadvantaged group.

  • Location: Access to basic sectors, such as employment, health care, schools, childcare and other social services. Legislation should ensure location enables women opportunities to achieve gender equality.

  • Cultural adequacy: Cultural identity and diversity. Legislation should ensure that women have the opportunity to participate in the planning of housing.

(See: COHRE, Women and Housing Rights, 2nd ed., 2008)


Responding to victims' needs


  • Legislation should provide access to health care, particularly reproductive health care and HIV prophylaxis. Widows may be survivors of sexual violence and therefore need medical care to address HIV/AIDS, STDs, and other reproductive health complications. Because women in forced marriages, such as levirate or sororate marriages, may have less power to negotiate safe sex practices, their risk of contracting STDs and HIV is heightened.

  • National policies and programs on HIV/AIDS should incorporate a human rights and women’s human rights approach. Incorporate programs that promote economic and educational opportunities for women and protect their property, land and inheritance rights into these national strategies.

  • Legislation should promote access to justice for women living with HIV/AIDS by establishing accessible and specialized structures (courts, police units and legal aid) to address their human rights violations.

  • Laws should support shelters for women who have lost their land and homes to property grabbing. Legislation should provide funding and support for alternative housing to women living with HIV/AIDS and their children. Such housing should satisfy adequate housing standards. See: Section on Right to Adequate Housing. Planners should ensure that women living with or affected by HIV/AIDS should be able to participate in the planning and developing of such housing programs.

  • Legislation should provide for public awareness activities and trainings on women’s human rights, non-discrimination and its linkages to HIV/AIDS. In addition to targeting women living with or affected by HIV/AIDS, efforts should aim to educate the general public, community leaders, legal actors, land officials, media, and local and national agencies.

  • Legislation should provide for economic opportunities to women living with or affected by HIV/AIDS. Programs to promote economic empowerment include appropriate credit schemes, loans and other programs that will facilitate their access to a livelihood. Efforts should ensure access to social services, land, credit, employment opportunities, markets and improved agricultural techniques

(See: Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, Shelter from the Storm: Women’s Housing Rights and the Struggle against HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, 2009. UNDP, HIV/AIDS and Poverty Reduction Strategies, 2002; UNAIDS Global Coalition on Women and AIDS, Economic Security for Women Fights AIDS, Issue No. 3)


Promising Practices: UNAIDS Global Coalition on Women and AIDS has documented several promising practices with respect to promoting the human rights of widows living with HIV/AIDS. In Kenya, five widows living with HIV created the Young Widows Advancement Program (YWAP) to counter public stigmatization, address the effects of HIV among widows and help widows protect their property, inheritance and other rights. YWAP provides psychosocial support, support groups, legal aid, paralegal assistance and will-writing workshops. In Tamil Nadu, India, the state AIDS agency collaborates with the Tamil Nadu Corporation for Women’s Development in using microenterprise/savings projects to conduct education on HIV prevention. The program incorporates HIV information into its women’s self-help groups. Eighty percent of the 193,000 rural self-help groups (3 million members) have integrated HIV education into their programs. See: UNAIDS Global Coalition on Women and AIDS, Economic Security for Women Fights AIDS, Issue No. 3.


Post-conflict Situations


Drafters should also address the needs of widows in post-conflict situations. Widows may have survived sexual assault, suffered physical injuries, be vulnerable to domestic violence, face economic challenges, be acting as the single head of household, have refugee status or be internally displaced, and have lost their right to the marital home, property, and land upon their husband’s death. Widows should be involved in peacebuilding and reconstruction efforts.