Crisis Centers and Hotlines
last updated February 1, 2006

Crisis centers and hotlines provide support and counseling services to victims of violence. In many parts of the world, crisis centers and hotlines rely on trained volunteers to work with battered women. This type of assistance is based on the theory that women are the best judges of their own situations and support from peers rather than professional psychologists is an effective method of assisting the women in determining her best course of action.

Often, crisis intervention programs partner with the police in order to provide immediate assistance and support to domestic violence victims. The obligations and responsibilities of each party are generally memorialized in a written agreement. In Britain, for example, the police agreed to notify the domestic violence program when a domestic violence arrest occurred, so that an advocate could immediately offer assistance and services to the victim. The domestic violence program also followed-up with the victim a day or two after the incident. In developing such arrangements, however, precautions must be built into the system to ensure that the intervention does not endanger the safety of the victim or the advocate. From Liz Kelly et al., Domestic Violence Matters: an evaluation of a development project, Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate 7 (1999).

Advocacy Principles

While it is critical that advocates, both staff and volunteers, receive training on issues such as advocacy principles and the dynamics of domestic violence, they need not be professional therapists or lawyers. The organizing principle of crisis centers and hotlines is that support from peers rather than professional psychologists is an effective way to help women evaluate risks and identify the best course of action.

Staff and volunteers who work at crisis centers must follow advocacy guidelines. Confidentiality, as always, is of primary importance. Advocates can employ creative approaches to protect women's confidentiality. A crisis center in Uzebekistan, for example, created a back entrance, while another established itself in a building that also housed a sewing school, "so that women could stop by on a the way to a 'legitimate' destination." From MAHR, Domestic Violence in Uzbekistan 57 (2000).

In addition to confidentiality, it is vital that staff and volunteers at a crisis center or hotline understand that while they can help a battered woman find and evaluate the choices and options that are available to her, only she can make the decision about what course of action to take. The role of an advocate is to listen, ask appropriate questions, and offer referrals to and information about resources and other options that are available.

To do otherwise may, in fact, endanger the woman who is seeking assistance. For example, an intervention approach under which advocates contact husbands in order to arrange for joint counseling may have severe and potentially lethal consequences. First, contacting a husband alerts him to the fact that his partner has sought assistance and disclosed the abuse. He may view this as a challenge to his authority or a first step towards separation and retaliate with violence. Second, by contacting the husband, advocates disclose information that was relayed in confidence. Women may, as a consequence, feel even more isolated and forgo seeking additional help. Third, because reconciling women with their husbands does not address the underlying issues of power and control that are at the core of the violence, the abuse is likely to continue as before.

Publicizing Services

Critical to the success of hotlines and crisis centers are community education or media campaigns to publicize the existence of these services. Such campaigns serve the dual purpose of informing the public that these services are available and raising awareness about domestic violence.

Service Accessibility

Both hotlines and crisis centers may need to assess the accessibility of the services they provide. Translation services help ensure that the services offered are available to women in different communities. Hotlines may want to equip their telephone system to accommodate hearing-impaired women. In choosing a location for a crisis center, the accessibility of the center for women with disabilities may be an important criteria.

Because hotlines rely on the phone system, additional factors should be considered prior to starting such a service. In many countries, telephone service is available only in urban areas. While such services may be useful for women in cities, it is important for advocates to consider the provision of services to rural women, who may experience significant isolation because of reduced transportation opportunities and greater distances from resources.


Documentation is an important part of providing services through crisis centers and hotlines. Such documentation can be useful both externally and internally.

Internally, documentation can help ensure that battered women receive better service. Whether it is a crisis center or a hotline, women may call or visit multiple times. A brief record (nature of question or problem, advice that was given) created by the staff person or volunteer who initially talked to a woman can be read by other staff and volunteers so that all are appraised of her situation; as a result, she will not have to reiterate the details of her situation each time she speaks to a new person. The information collected can also be used to help the center ensure that the services it is providing are needed and to identify additional services or programs that could be effective in combating domestic violence.

Externally, the information collected about individuals who have contacted the center (number, needs, obstacles encountered) can be used to document the prevalence, scope and nature of the problem. This information can, in turn, be used to support community education campaigns and legislative reform efforts. In addition, this data can be extremely useful in fundraising, particularly in creating grant applications for both private and government financial support, because it can establish the need for the services provided by the center or for additional services not yet available.

Recording information, however, must be done in a way that protects the victim's confidentiality. General statistics collected for external purposes should be maintained without any personal or identifying information. To the extent that personal information is important for internal reasons, this information should be protected from unauthorized disclosure.

Please see the 2008 United Nations expert group report entitled "Good practices in legislation on violence against women", Section 6.B on rape crisis centers.  For the Russian version of the recommendations to the report, click here.