Dec. 7, 2021 — When the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe and eventually made its way to North America, communities scrambled to find protection against the infectious disease. But at the Toronto-based Canadian Women’s Foundation, there were other safety measures underway.
The foundation’s leadership team knew that quarantines during a time of global panic would lead to more domestic violence. In April 2020, they launched the “signal for help,” a hand gesture that has led to the rescue of endangered women.
“We knew gender-based violence would spike during the pandemic,” says Andrea Gunraj, vice president of public engagement at the Canadian Women’s Foundation. “Abuse often happens behind closed doors and spikes in times of crisis. We also knew there’d be an increased use of video calls. It seemed like the right time to launch a tool to signal, ‘I need you to check in with me.’”
The foundation spread the word using social media, traditional media, and partners in domestic violence intervention. By the time a poll was issued in June, 1 in 3 Canadians knew of the signal. Since then, it has been popularized on social media sites and apps, particularly TikTok.
The gesture has three steps: hand up with palm out, thumb tucked, and fingers folded down.
Since then, there’s been a handful of known cases in which the signal was a lifeline for survivors of abuse. And there are probably similar instances that have not been reported, Gunraj says.
In January of this year, YouTuber Om Sayf used the gesture in a video to her 5 million subscribers, leading to her escape. Another young person reportedly used the signal during a Zoom call and got help, Gunraj says.
More recently, a missing teenage girl was rescued after using the signal to surrounding cars on the interstate, while an older man was behind the wheel.
“For as many stories as we hear about this, there are thousands we don’t,” Gunraj says. “There have been many campaigns similar to this, and all useful tools in their own right.”
Several studies have found a rise in domestic abuse during the pandemic, including one from researchers at the University of California, Davis linking isolation and financial strain to the spike.
According to theAmerican Journal of Emergency Medicine, cities nationwide saw an increase in police reports of domestic violence during the pandemic. In San Antonio, TX, for instance, there was an 18% increase, while a 22% increase was reported in Portland, OR. New York City, meanwhile, saw a 10% jump in such reports.
And like other systemic inequities that have been further exposed by the pandemic, communities of color and those living in low-income situations experience much higher rates of abuse.
And there are fewer resources to deal with these issues, making the problem worse, says Jackie Savage-Borne, a social worker and program manager for Passageway, a domestic abuse intervention and prevention program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
“We got flooded with calls in the first months of the pandemic from medical providers, concerned friends and family, and people in domestic violence situations,” she says. “The lack of resources is already quite concerning. And if you think about all the financial ramifications the pandemic has had, it has been even worse. Shelters essentially had to not let any new residents in because of COVID.”
The hand signal has been an important resource, she says. But as with any tools that can be used to escape from dangerous situations, it comes with risks.
For example, if the abuser catches wind of the gesture, it could turn into an even more dangerous situation, she says.
“I think so much of what abuse and control looks like is monitoring,” Savage-Borne says. “So many of the folks we work with are very closely monitored. You can imagine, other people connected to those utilizing abusive behaviors may be watching.”
Those using the signal should also beware of trafficking predators watching out for women in vulnerable situations, says Jessica Loftus, community program manager for Brigham’s Center for Community Health and Health Equity.
People responding to the hand gesture should also be cautious about what steps they take to help the survivor, she says.
“When we think about responding to someone in distress, we impose our own values of what is safe and what the next steps should look like,” Loftus says. “The nuance becomes really hard, and it’s difficult for people in that moment to say, ‘How can I help you, and what do you need?’ We have to remember that safety looks different to every single person.”
For more information about how to help in those situations, Gunraj suggests visiting the Canadian Women’s Foundation guide on safe ways to intervene.
For those in the United States in need of help, the domestic violence hotline number is 800-799-SAFE (800-799-7233).