The hand gesture was created by the Canadian Women’s Foundation as a “Signal for Help” for those who are in danger or trouble. The group launched it in 2020, predicting that domestic violence and abuse victims may need to use it during quarantine times in the pandemic.
A survey conducted in April 2020 by the University of California Devis
(Nikos-Rose, 2021) found that those who reported intimate partner abuse and violence, also felt that stress had increased during the pandemic and lockdown situations. Researchers found that the financial stresses of COVID-19 lead to mental stress and that led to people having more situations to argue about. “In many instances, that type of situation leads to an occasion for intimate partner violence,” the researchers claimed.1
The Hand signal for help was prepared and launched during the peak of COVID-19 to alert people who might otherwise not know that somebody is suffering from domestic violence. Victims of violence were immovable at home with their abusers, and the places where they would first go to for help were closed and they were not able to see people in person.
Doctors’ offices, health clinics, schools, and courts were all closed or had limited access. People didn’t have any place to go where they could be separated from their abusers and let someone know that they are experiencing harm and are in trouble. A silent hand gesture, either in person or over a video call, lets somebody know that violence is occurring in a way that an abuser can’t hear and the good thing is that it would not leave any social media prints or records.
The Canadian Women’s Foundation believed that the social isolation measures taken during the pandemic would make it more difficult for victims of abuse to reach out for some help. To make the signal, show your palm as if to give a high-five, then tuck the thumb and lower the fingers over it.
During Covid-19 pandemic, this signal was prepared for people who were stuck at home with their abusive partners as an avenue to seek help and rescue “without being heard and without leaving a digital trace or footprints”. The silent hand signal was a perfect solution during the time of lockdown as people were living in isolation but also more video calls among friends, family and colleagues were taking place.
The video about this hand signal was shared by the Foundation on YouTube as an example in 2020; In the video, it is shown that how a woman making the hand signal is seeking help while having a casual video chat with a friend and discussing some recipe. In this way, she raised her hand and gave this hand gesture silently, as her abuser was right behind her.
Soon after this many videos were made showing this hand signal to seek help. Such short videos went viral on a popular social media platform- TikTok in which the victim raises the hand signal silently to seek help and the people around them call the Police and rescue the victim.2
It is pertinent to mention that a big rise has been observed in the domestic violence cases during the pandemic. As many researchers claimed that during the pandemic the home became an extremely dangerous place for women. As women started living with their abusive intimate partners and were facing extreme forms of domestic and gender-based violence. In such cases, they were able to contact their friends and family via video calls and were able to ask them for help.3
The Foundation further suggests the meaning of this hand signal and suggests that we should check in with the person in a safe manner to find out what specific support they need and what she wants you to do. This signal could also mean that calling the victim and asking them specified questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no”. As you could ask if the person would want you to call Rescue-15- Police or if you should call a shelter for them or should inform their family.
Another option can be to use any form of communication and ask general questions about the help they need to know what kind of support the person is in need of. The Foundation suggests asking, “Do you want me to reach out to you directly?” Or “Can I check in with you?”. So, the victim can easily respond to such questions by saying Yes or No. Then the next step of providing support would come.
The Foundation also explains that the “Signal for Help” doesn’t necessarily mean to call the police right away. As the person might want to talk with you or get some information. But if you believe the person is in immediate danger or threat, then you should call the Police directly. On November 02, 2021, a 16-year-old North Carolina girl was reported missing and was found later making the hand signal. When a Kentucky driver noticed the girl in a passing car making hand gestures, he knew from TikTok. The driver noticed that the car was driven by an old man. So, he made a call to the Police and told them about the girl who was motioning for help. Police were able to pull over and arrest the man driving the girl. She is now back with her parents and the 61-year-old kidnapper is charged with many crimes, including kidnapping.
Survivors who are attempting to escape their abusers are often cautioned and afraid about the threats of tracing technology and social media sites, which can possibly be used by an abuser to locate them and abuse them again. Morgan Wilson, the interim director of the Domestic Violence Institute at Northeastern, says that technology now offers several ways for those experiencing domestic violence and their advocates to use platforms like TikTok to increase awareness and send—or get—help.4
This hand gesture has been picked up on TikTok. Nowadays youngsters are using social media platforms in ways that are innovative and dynamic, to grab more audience. The fact that this hand signal is gaining pull on TikTok is a good thing. And TikTok being popular among youngsters has a big number of users who experience gender-based violence and domestic violence too, and so developing a medium through which they can get this information in a short, consumable way and that is further shared with others is important. This is a great step as some fruitful information is passing through social media platforms. One video, published on October 30 by two feminist activists, showing people how to use the hand signal for help gathered over 600 thousand views.
Many TikTok creators acted on how this hand gesture for help can be used in different scenarios.
Studies have shown that intimate partner violence rises whenever families are together for longer periods of time. During Covid-19 worldwide lockdowns coupled with tense situations, like job losses, financial crisis or sickness made a storm for rising in gender-based violence. According to a report of the United Nations, Domestic violence cases increased more than 20% in countries such as Argentina, France and Singapore during each country’s respective lockdown periods starting from March 2020 while other countries saw spikes in rapes, missing women or femicides.5
The rise in violence against women was also observed in Pakistan. And if we have a look at Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan women are oppressed in a system of deep-rooted patriarchy and Covid- 19 has made their homes the most dangerous place for them on earth. From September 2019 to March 2020, 152 incidents of gender-based violence were reported, according to the Social Welfare Department’s Bolo Helpline6. From March 2020 to October, a total of 224 incidents were reported in 2020. Violence has risen to 67%, which is alarming. Statistics show that limited mobility and financial stress contribute to increased aggression and oppression.7
Shad Begum, a social worker, said that we are living in a male-dominated culture where men can easily beat their women, and if they speak up for their rights then it is considered a threat to our traditional cultural values. ۔ “We live in a culture where even our parliamentarians believe that domestic violence should be a part of our culture to control women,” she said. So, there is acceptance for domestic violence but no acceptance for the law to prevent it. Our religion has given women all the basic rights, but our people always violate the rights of women in the name of the patriarchal system.
According to the Health and Population Survey, 52% of women in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa face domestic violence from their partners and husbands, which is the highest in the country, compared to 66% in the tribal districts.8 These statistics include only cases of marital violence, however, there are many other types of violence against women in the province and they are not reported. For most women, there are several barriers to reporting their violence cases and seeking formal help. As this is not accepted socially, a woman would report the violence case against her partner and would never go against her husband. In our society, a good woman should cover the violence and abuse and should never speak up against her husband. There are many stigmas attached to reporting violence including shame, social stigma, financial matters, fear of family members, fear of revenge, and divorce. Social activists argue that the main issue is inadequate legal and government protection.
United Nations report on women has shown that the crisis of Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated gender-based violence, gender inequality and gender discrimination around the world. The report, entitled “The first 100 days of the spread of Covid 19 in Asia and the Pacific: a gender lens”, confirms the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on women and girls. The report observes that the pooling and cleanliness measures taken by various countries mean that millions of women are being held confined by those who have limited access to help, rescue and assistance.9
Other measures are taken, like the Canadian Women’s Foundation’s hand gesture campaign has given women safe ways to report about the domestic violence they are facing at home. In Spain and France, victims could ask for help safely in pharmacies, by asking for “mask-19”.10 In our country, there were helplines through which the cases of domestic violence were reported.
On the other hand, communicating different ways victims of violence can ask for help is essential, but some worry that making these methods and techniques of reporting about violence go viral will only make it easier for abusers to recognize them. That’s why some advocates and activists believe that it is important to have multiple ways and techniques for people who are experiencing domestic abuse or other forms of violence to seek help. Whether it’s flashing a hand signal during a video chat with a friend or reaching out to a trusted hotline using a codeword. It is the responsibility of the state to take care of the rights of its citizens and wherever there is some violation of human rights, then the culprits should be punished to avoid any such unfavorable situations in the future.
In Pakistan, we have laws to prevent violence against women but there is no or little implementation of those laws. That leads to the issue of gender-based violence but through the internet, women get avenues to report incidents of violence against them and take the conversation forward.
1A survey conducted by University of California Davis in 2021. https://www.ucdavis.edu/curiosity/news/covid-19-isolation-linked-increased-domestic-violence-researchers-sugges
2In many cases, the videos of minor girls who were going to be kidnapped gave this hand signal and got rescued (Medina, 2021). https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/08/us/tiktok-hand-signal-abduction.html
3(UNODC, 2021) https://www.unodc.org/documents/pakistan/Advocacy_Brief_4_Gender_-COVID-19-Punjab.pdf
4(Chabot, 2021). https://news.northeastern.edu/2021/11/09/missing-teen-rescued-after-using-distress-hand-signal-from-tiktok/
6Firsthand data provided by KP Social Welfare Department
7Firsthand data taken from KP Social Welfare Department’s Bolo Help