As the COVID crisis deepens, domestic abuse cases continue to rise around the world. Under the limitations of lockdown, activists are scrambling to find creative ways to support those who now find themselves confined to a violent home or partner. In the US and Canada, the Women’s Funding Network has launched #SignalforHelp, an online initiative to give anyone at risk a powerful but discreet way to reach out for assistance.

The campaign, devised in collaboration with the Canadian Women’s Foundation, introduces a simple hand signal that can be silently displayed during video calls, to alert family, friends or colleagues that an individual needs help. The gesture involves lifting one hand up to the camera, tucking your thumb into your palm and closing your fist. The strength of the visual cue is that it is untraceable yet distinct, and can provide an alternative to calling 911, which may be difficult in an already unsafe situation. 

Explaining the idea further, Network president Elizabeth Barajas-Román has said: “You have people stuck at home and maybe also someone who is sick with the virus. There are also mounting financial pressures and the general stresses of a pandemic. This all just adds to the escalation, and we really saw a need to start thinking about new tools that abuse victims can use.”


So what should you do if you’re the one receiving the message? The #SignalforHelp campaign has put together clear guidelines and resource kits to teach people how to offer help safely. For example, to reduce the risk of someone listening, it’s important to ask questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no”. If they are not in immediate danger, stay calm, offer different forms of communication, and let the survivor tell you what they need from you.

Helping to spread awareness about the campaign, is a series of illustrations and animations which are being shared on social media. In raising awareness and sensitivity towards domestic violence issues, the hope is that #SignalforHelp can offer some agency to survivors during — and beyond — the COVID crisis. As the team points out, tools like these are part of a larger effort that can “help some people, some of the time.” 

Top image by Yazmin Butcher.