Advocacy Guidelines and Approaches

Last updated 2019

Domestic violence advocacy strategies are often grounded in "equality" or "difference" approaches.

Under an equality approach, the problem of violence against women is understood as having its roots in differential treatment of men and women. For example, the legal system inadequately protects women because it treats stranger violence differently than it does violence perpetrated by a spouse or intimate partner. Advocacy efforts must focus on ensuring that the legal system treats all forms of violence equally.

Advocates working under a "difference" approach, on the other hand, view violence perpetrated in the family as different from stranger violence and maintain that any solution must respond to and account for those differences. The Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, for example, has adopted such an approach. Under this approach,

assaulting your wife is not like assaulting someone in a bar or at a party or in a social setting where the victim and offender have no familial or economic or emotional ties to each other. In a barroom fight, if a victim pursues a conviction by cooperating with the prosecutor, the case will likely go forward; if the victim does not want to cooperate and expresses a strong desire to have the whole case just disappear, it will likely be dropped. But applying that same standard to domestic assault cases is problematic for many reasons; most important, it gives the offender who has control over the victim control over the state's intervention.[i]

Effective domestic violence advocacy may include both approaches. Making sure that the police respond as effectively to domestic violence incidents as they do to incidents of stranger violence is critical to ensuring adequate protection for victims. However, many have argued for laws specifically designed to address domestic violence. Laws that criminalize domestic violence may be more effective than general laws that may render this kind of violence invisible. In addition, general laws rarely provide victims with the special assistance they need or counter the unique difficulties they face in accessing the legal system. Advocates should always be aware of the possibility that any legal reforms that separate domestic violence from general crimes may ultimately backfire and result in domestic violence being viewed as a "second class," or less important crime.

The advocate's role is to provide confidential support and assistance to victims so they can make decisions about the options that are available to them. Advocates must respect differences and avoid assumptions. Advocates may themselves believe certain myths about domestic violence, and should attempt to be aware of any assumptions they might be making. Further, women experience violence in different ways, and advocates should try to be aware of ways in which women may face additional barriers or have specific needs because of, for example, ethnic identity or economic resources.


Victim safety is paramount in all aspects of domestic violence advocacy. However, attempting to ensure absolute safety may ultimately build barriers around a victim’s ability to exercise her agency, for example, regarding whether or not she stays with her abuser. As Jill Davies and Eleanor Lyon stated in their 2014 report:

[I]t is more accurate, more truthful to see the work of advocates as making victims safer rather than achieving safety. The concept of safer as a goal for advocacy provides a flexible and responsive measure of success. It allows advocates to help make things better without believing that they’ve failed if all victims are not immediately and completely safe. Rejecting perfection as the standard makes room for intermediate steps toward safety on both an individual and systemic level.[ii]


Advocates must keep all information about victims of domestic violence strictly confidential. Confidentially is essential both to promote a relationship of trust between the victim and the advocate and to avoid endangering the victim. For example, confidentiality regarding a victim’s presence at a shelter is necessary to enhance her safety: “Historically, confidentiality, privacy and secrecy have been of paramount importance to battered women’s shelters and advocacy programs throughout the nation. Safeguarding the location of emergency shelters, protecting the identities of program participants and ensuring private access to advocacy services have always been key components of advocacy programs.”[iii] In addition to promoting victim safety, confidentiality promotes victim agency by allowing for self-determination.[iv]

Advocates should know, however, that while confidentiality has been a long-standing component domestic violence advocacy, the boundaries of confidentiality regarding a particular situation or safety plan must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis with the help of the victim. [v]


Advocates offer moral support to the woman and develop her confidence to use resources to solve the problem. Victims may often feel ashamed of the abuse, be terrified of the abuser, and blame themselves for the abuser’s actions. Advocates should seek to convey to the woman that it is not her fault, she has options, and she is not alone.

While it can be difficult to see someone stay in a situation in which she is being harmed, there may be many obstacles that prevent the woman from leaving. For example, she may not be able to support herself or her children without the financial support of her partner, and leaving may itself impose an additional financial burden. She may not have alternative housing, or she may fear that she will lose her children. She may be reluctant to leave her husband for religious or emotional reasons, face pressure to stay from family, friends or her community, or fear being ostracized by her family or community if she leaves. In addition, leaving entails substantial risks. She may fear that the abuser will carry out threats to harm her, himself the children, friends or family. Victims are in the greatest danger of severe or even lethal attacks when they attempt to leave, and she is the only one who can judge when it is safe for her to do so.

Information and Decision-making

Women must be provided with as much information as possible, and advocates can facilitate women's ability to weigh the options available to her. Initially, this may take the form of helping her to conduct lethality assessments and identify needs and resources. Advocates provide women with information about different legal, medical and administrative systems and the rules and procedures of these systems. They help women identify and explore all possible options and possible consequences, and assist in developing strategies and a plan of action. Advocates can also discuss and rehearse the plan of action, assist in preparation of all necessary documents or requests for assistance, and help rethink plans of action if they fail or if circumstances change.

However, in some situations, advocates may adopt a more paternalistic approach to “protect” victims and ultimately withhold information deemed unacceptable, such as conflict management.”[vi] This is ultimately damaging to victim empowerment and safety. The same is true for advocates who apply inappropriate pressure on victims to force them into making a decision that the advocate views as best, regardless of the victim’s wishes.


[i] From Ellen L. Pence, "Some Thoughts on Philosophy," in Coordinating Community Responses to Domestic Violence: Lessons from the Duluth Model 25, 31 (Melanie F. Shepard & Ellen L. Pence eds., 1999).

[ii] Jill Davies & Eleanor Lyon, Domestic Violence Advocacy: Complex Lives/Difficult Choices 8 (2014).

[iii] Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Model Protocol: On Confidentiality .When Working with Battered Women 1 (2007).

[iv] Id. at 2.

[v] Id. at 2.

[vi] Jennifer A. Guthrie & Adrianne Kunkel, Problematizing the Uniform Application of the Formula Story: Advocacy for Survivors in a Domestic Violence Support Group, 38 Women & Language 43, 54 (2015).