NYWS Violence Against Women Language Guide

Snapshot View of Practice

The NYWS Violence Against Women Language Guide is a 15-page communication guide for VAW shelter workers, advocates, and anyone interested in gender-based violence. The document guides the reader through definitions and proper usage of commonly used terms like anti-racism, anti-oppression, harm-reduction, and trauma-informed,  and outlines what it means to use them in shelter frontline work, clinical work, and advocacy. It asks the reader to reflect on their use of language and write in a way that is empowering, not harmful, to survivors. The language guide is a working document that reflects the ever-changing violence against women’s work and language.


Name of Shelter
North York Women’s Shelter (NYWS)
Type of Shelter
Emergency Shelter
Toronto, Ontario
Awareness, Education, & Prevention. Human Resources, Staff Capacity, & Training.
Less than $50,000
Time Investment
Prep Time
6 months
What is NYWS Violence Against Women Language Guide

The Violence Against Women (VAW) Language Guide is a 15-page working communication guide for shelter workers, advocates, and anyone interested in VAW. The document discusses terms like anti-racism, anti-oppression, harm-reduction, and trauma-informed, and outlines what it means to use them in VAW frontline work, clinical work, and advocacy. It shares practices around reflection and storytelling and supports the writer in orienting themselves in the VAW context. The guide reflects the evolving nature of VAW language and work. The document identifies phrases, words, and terminology that can be harmful but have historically been used in VAW work. It also identifies reasons why these terms are harmful and provides alternatives.

Language has evolved in the VAW sector in the recent decade. We’re becoming more aware of how to speak about survivors in a way that honours their dignity and power…We don’t want to gatekeep the knowledge; it’s an easy-to-read resource designed for people that aren’t in this space and people working in this field. It democratizes knowledge and makes people comfortable to ask questions.”

The team accepts that this is not an exhaustive document that represents all VAW language. They also believe that this document can be contested and improved upon. The team wishes to open the document to more readers for recommendations, discussions, and ideas. They want it to be ever-evolving and serve as a guide that documents the learning process of NYWS as well as other VAW and social justice organizations.


This document emerged from discussions between NYWS staff on how to make VAW terminology accessible to the larger community and sensitive to the needs of survivors. NYWS adopts a community-centric funding model, whichfocuses on the people that are being served, making sure that they are heard and empowered. However, NYWS was having trouble communicating what they wanted from their partners when it came to ethical storytelling and honouring survivors, which led to repeated conversations. They needed a communications guide for their partners as well as staff on ethical storytelling and harmful language within the VAW field. It started as a rough document but evolved into a larger working document that can be used within the organization, with partners, and with the larger VAW community. The NYWS communications team had conversations at length about the commonly used language and words within VAW services. They documented these conversations in the Guide so that engagement could continue beyond the employees involved and be a starting point for others to reflect. The team did online research, finding reliable and corroborative sources. They also drew knowledge from their regular interactions with clients and personal feelings about certain terms.

How does the program work

The team wrote original definitions, after much reading and researching. They provided references and credited sources when existing resources were compiled. The team put careful consideration into the tone of the document, making sure that it is not judgemental and that it shares their learning process, positioning them not as experts but as co-learners. The document mentions problematic terminology along with an alternative and an explanation of why it may be considered problematic. The document also provides questions, diagrams, and guidelines on how to approach writing and storytelling with survivors of gender-based violence. This document is written in simple and non-academic language, making it easier for practical use for VAW service providers. They deliberated on terms that are known to be outdated in VAW services and excluded them after repeated discussions. This kept the document concise.

What is the impact of this program

This document helps NYWS to advocate effectively for the community-centric funding model with their partners. It’s also a useful tool for new staff onboarding. The guide has helped the entire team articulate, think, pause, and analyze the rapidly changing communication and language within the VAW sector. Further, it helps generate conversations during outreach work, such as presentations in schools. The team is also working on a youth advocacy kit, which will be used to help youth who are interested in activism. As part of the kit, this document will help potential activists understand VAW terminology, offer them the appropriate language to have relevant conversations, and help them feel confident.

The document also supports NYWS’s advocacy strategy, which includes the potential for everyone to act as an advocate. Specifically, this Language Guide offers language support, welcoming the community to become advocates of gender-based violence. It serves as a resource for someone who does not know about the VAW sector, giving them a window into this work. It can be used as a resource for people who want to become VAW shelter professionals.

“Language is a big barrier…as we evolve into what is more appropriate terminology, it becomes more exclusive [so] it is important that we welcome people in through resources like this.”

Challenges in Implementing
  • Creating a shared resource document requires patience, time, and external resources. This work involves the team being on board, meeting frequently, deliberating, and discussing regularly.
Tips for those who wish to do something similar
  • Create a culture of trust in your workspace where you can question and challenge each other comfortably. For this collaborative process to work, your team members must be comfortable speaking their minds openly ( e.g. “I do not agree with this.”).
  • You must be intellectually curious and able to accept that you don't know everything, or that you might be wrong. A good starting place is to admit that you have also grown up in a culture of white supremacy and oppression and be open to challenging that.
Guideline to use this practice
Contact Name
Esther Lee
Contact Designation
Development Communications Manager
Contact Email
Contact Website