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National Referral System for GBV Victims: State of Palestine

The National Referral System for victims of gender-based violence in the State of Palestine (2013-ongoing)

September 18, 2023
Author: Rabab Hteit

Amid the high prevalence of gender-based violence (GBV), the government of the State of Palestine has successfully institutionalized the protection of victims of GBV through a National Referral System that provides shelter for victims to escape their aggressors. The National Referral System provides a holistic approach to supporting victims of GBV by providing them with health, social, legal, and security services.

In 2011, The Domestic Violence Survey found that 37 percent of women in the State of Palestine were victims of GBV in the past year: 30 percent in the West Bank and 51 percent in the Gaza Strip.1 Amidst concern over the high rates of GBV inflicted upon women in the State of Palestine, the government launched the National Strategy to Combat Violence Against Women (2011-2019) in the State of Palestine, which offers a thorough policy framework directing actions at all levels towards preventing violence against women and girls and successfully meeting victims’ needs. A central part of the strategy is the adoption of a National Referral System (NRS), which is a set of guidelines that coordinate how health, social, legal, and police institutions support victims of GBV, including through information exchange and service provision.2

Women who are victims of GBV are provided with access to women’s shelters through the NRS. The NRS details the responsibilities of three sectors to protect and care for victims of GBV who are seeking help in shelters, while regulating coordination between them:

  • Health sector, including health professionals, doctors, and medical institutions;
  • Social sector, including women’s shelters, counselors, and psychologists; and
  • Police sector, including family protection units and the judicial police, as well as coordination with the Attorney General’s office and the Ministry of Social Affairs.3

Any individual or institution can refer a victim of GBV to women’s shelters through the NRS, but their final referral must be approved by the Ministry of Social Affairs. Once the referral is approved, the victim is admitted into a shelter and granted health, social, and legal services, in line with the provisions of the NRS.4

The NRS strategy defines a shelter as a residential facility that provides short-term interventions for women and children who are experiencing violence, are at a high risk of facing violence, or need to be protected.5 The above shelters provide counseling and psychological support, legal services, GBV awareness sessions, and rehabilitation by training women on crafts.6

Not all women are eligible to receive support from the NRS. Sex workers and drug addicts are excluded due to legal complications, while women with serious health problems and women with disabilities are excluded due to a lack of resources to fulfill their specific needs. There are three women’s shelters available for victims of GBV in the West Bank: the Center for the Protection and Empowerment of Women and the Family (Axis) in Bethlehem, the Jericho Emergency Center, and the Safe House in Nablus.7 There are two women’s shelters available for victims of GBV in the Gaza Strip: the Al-Hayat Center and the Safe House.


The Palestinian government adopted the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 2009, and gradually started implementing actions that support women’s rights. In 2011, Cabinet Decision No. (9) was adopted, outlining the establishment and operation of shelters for the protection of women who have experienced GBV. The law provides for the integration of social, health, legal, psychological, educational, and rehabilitative services. It stipulates that women’s shelters must operate under the supervision of the Ministry of Social Affairs, even if established by a non-governmental organization or a private entity, to guarantee the institutionalization and the legitimacy of the services provided. The law also stipulates that women’s shelters are responsible for providing protection for victims of GBV and their children (although the victim’s sons are only protected up to the age of twelve). High-risk cases are prioritized and immediately admitted into emergency centers.8

In 2013, the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs submitted the legal framework of the National Referral System for victims of GBV, which integrated and defined the responsibility of the health, social, and police sectors in the support of GBV victims before and after their admission into shelters. The framework was approved and implemented in 2014, and all institutions providing services to victims of GBV were mandated to use the NRS framework.9

The Ministry of Social Affairs monitors the operation of the shelters through six to eight inspection visits every year.10


The funding of women’s shelters is fully provided by the government, whereby part of the budget allocated to the Ministry of Social Affairs is dedicated to women’s shelters. In 2020, 2.5 percent of the budget, or USD 14,405, was allocated to the Ministry of Social Affairs and dedicated to women’s shelters.11


In the West Bank, the women’s shelters in Bethlehem, Nablus, and Jericho receive twelve, fifteen, and five women, respectively, on average each month.12 In Gaza, the Safety House received 1,580 cases between 2014 and 2019,13  while Al-Hayat Center received forty-three cases between 2018 and 2019, given the fact that it has a limited capacity (thirteen beds only) and was only operational starting 2018.14

The ongoing occupation severely limits the State of Palestine’s government resources and capacity to support its population and exerts a continuous threat to the sustainability and quality of services provided by women’s shelters. 

Nonetheless, by increasing coordination between different ministries and sectors (Ministries of Social Affairs and Health and Police Services), the government of the State of Palestine has successfully created an efficient system to provide as much support as it can to victims of GBV, illustrating what can be achieved with limited resources if there is political will.

In the absence of a law criminalizing GBV in the State of Palestine, the formalization and institutionalization of support to victims of GBV could change the social norms around it. The police and social services’ interference to protect and support a GBV victim shows that GBV is no longer socially acceptable. The provision of a shelter with granted legal support—whether this support leads to a restraining order or a divorce—may contribute to the empowerment of women, provide them with a legal option to leave an abusive partner, and help expose and intimidate men who exert GBV.

The efforts of the Palestinian government to combat violence against women, including the adoption of the NRS, may have contributed to a notable decrease in the percentage of Palestinian women experiencing any type of domestic violence during the past year from 36.7 percent in 2011 to 27.2 percent in 2019.15