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Code words, hand signals and social media: How attempts to help abuse victims might backfire

TORONTO — As more victims of domestic violence are trapped at home with abusive partners during the coronavirus pandemic, some online communities are suggesting code words and hand signals that victims can use to seek help.

This week, the Canadian Women’s Foundation started a new campaign called “Signal For Help,” which establishes a tucked-thumb, closed-fist hand gesture that people can use on video calls to seek help.

Another social media campaign that uses the coded language of a makeup order garnered international attention online:

“If you are currently stuck in isolation with someone who is abusive, shoot me a message asking if I’m still selling makeup,” the posts read. “If you message specifically about liquid eyeliner, I will ask for your address,” the message continues, adding that the address is “for shipping [wink emoji]” and that the recipient will contact law enforcement.

When abuse survivor Calyn Blackburn first posted the words on Facebook earlier this month, she didn’t expect it to attract hundreds of comments and more than 74,000 shares. She’s still receiving messages from people asking if she’s selling makeup. She told CTVNews.ca that she would have felt less isolated and alone if there was a similar campaign while she was experiencing abuse.

“In my situation, I’m not sure if I would have accepted the offer and sent a message about ‘makeup for sale,’ but I definitely would have been grateful to have someone in my corner,” the Missouri woman wrote in a message to CTVNews.ca on Facebook.

As Canadians are told to stay home as much as possible to keep safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, self-isolation is in fact less safe for many victims of domestic violence who are now stuck at home with abusive partners full-time. As a result, countries around the world have been reporting drastic surges in calls to helplines and major bed shortages at women’s shelters.

In Toronto, staff at the Assaulted Women’s Helpline have seen a 400 per cent increase in requests for shelter space in the last six months, Yvonne Harding, manager of resource development, told CTVNews.ca.

“Pre-COVID, we had about 471 calls per month asking for shelter space. Now we’re up to just shy of 1,900 calls,” Harding said. “Unfortunately there’s not the bed space to go along with that. It was already quite limited to begin with and now it’s well exceeded capacity. A lot of safety planning goes into place as a result.”

Those plans may involve how someone can try to stay safe in their current abusive environment, Harding said, or how someone can eventually leave that environment with the things they might forget about in a “panic” situation: identification and medications, for example, and a plan for where to go and from whom to seek help.

Code words and signals like those shared widely in recent weeks may also be part of those safety plans. But Harding warns that they could backfire.

“If you know about the signals there is a potential for the abuser to also know about the signal given that they’re out in the public space,” she said. “You want to make sure that you are in as safe a place as possible when you’re using it, given that you’re probably at home with them. The ability to cover your tracks is also important.”

She suggests victims of abuse develop code words and signals with a “small and intimate group” of people who know their needs and are close by, instead of relying on people on social media who may be unfamiliar and far away.

“These (campaigns) are really well intended, but you have to have a better sense of the nature of what is going on and what risks the person faces and how to mitigate those risk,” she said.

The “Signal For Help” campaign started by the Canadian Women’s Foundation was intended as a response to the increasing use of video conferencing and chatting during self-isolation, said Andrea Gunraj, vice president of public engagement, while acknowledging that abusers often exert control over technology in the home.

“This is designed to help give somebody a tool that they can silently, and without leaving a digital trace, indicate that they need help,” she said.

The Foundation understands the concern that an abuser may become aware of such widespread online initiatives, said Gunraj.

“That’s always a possibility. We have to recognize that when somebody is being violent, abusive and controlling, that many times they control a person’s every move, every kind of contact they have,” she said.

The hand gesture campaign was not developed as “something that’s going to save the day,” she added, but rather as a “tool” someone may choose to use.

“Even when somebody is not using signal or not using another kind of clandestine way of showing that they need help, that we still have to be proactive about checking in with them,” she said. 

If you see the tucked-thumb sign during a video call, discreetly reach out to the person, Gunraj said. Ask yes or no questions on a phone call, or reach out through other means offering your support. “I want you to know that I’m here for you even though we’re not in person,” Gunraj suggests saying. “You can reach out to me through any mechanism that’s safe for you and I will help you in ways that you need.” Become familiar with the services that are available in your community to support victims of beyond 911, which may make some victims feel less safe.

Above all, help should be given through a “survivor-led approach,” she said, since each person’s needs will vary.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to this issue, because violence situations can be really different place-to-place, house-to-house, community-to-community,” she said. “There are all kinds of tools that might work. So the most important thing is to let the person who is reaching out to you for help — let them lead and tell you, don’t tell them what to do. The way ‘Signal For Help’ is positioned is one tool of many tools out there.”

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