Earlier this month, a 16-year-old teenager in Kentucky made global headlines when she was rescued after using a hand gesture she learned on TikTok, designed to signal for help in potentially life-threatening situations. A bystander, who recognized the sign from the window of the car she was in, called 911, leading to the arrest of her abuser who'd been driving her across states for weeks.
The gesture is a simple one: a thumb subtly tucked under a clenched fist, created to help victims of gender-based violence (GBV) get help without leaving a digital trace that would otherwise tip off their abusers.
Known as the "Signal For Help," the gesture has gone viral around the world — but it started in April 2020 with the Canadian Women's Foundation, a Toronto-based charity founded in 1991, as part of an effort to raise awareness for the "shadow pandemic" of violence against women amid a worrying increase in GBV partly caused by COVID-19.
"We launched [the Signal For Help] because we knew GBV [was] happening all around the world. We knew Canada would be no exception," Andrea Gunraj, Vice-President of Public Engagement at the Canadian Women's Foundation, told Global Citizen.
And for good reason.
While an average of 30% of Canadian women 15 or older already reported experiencing sexual assault in their lifetimes, the pandemic resulted in a surge in calls to the police for domestic violence (12% more women than in the previous year), and a substantial increase in femicides (a woman was killed every 2.5 days by her partner in 2020 alone).
Although women across the country are affected, certain communities endure disproportionate effects of GBV. Non-binary individuals, as well as Indigenous, Two-Spirit, Black, Trans, and racialized women, in particular, are at a far greater risk of violence compared to other groups, Gunraj points out. She says existing services often fail to address the needs of these populations, either because of a lack of funding or access or because of one-size-fits-all approaches omitting the intersectional nature of GBV and the uniqueness of cultural and individual experiences.
Much of the work of the Canadian Women's Foundation has been to shed light on the invisible — to bring attention to the under-reported and unnoticed side of GBV. A one-handed gesture like the Signal For Help, while simple to learn, can have a significant impact on someone's life, especially at a time when video communication is prevalent and where people experiencing GBV are worried about asking for help while trapped at home with their abusers.
Thankfully, the impact has been immediate.
Between April and July, 1 in 3 people in Canada already knew about the signal and how it ought to be used, Gunraj recalls.
"That's a really powerful statistic to show that it did strike a nerve," she says.
Since then, powerful stories of people using the signal started pouring in — from Canada to Turkey and Spain. Social media has further galvanized the movement, making it easier than ever to learn the gesture and to intervene before a situation escalates to violence. A quick search for the hashtag #SignalForHelp on Twitter will yield thousands of posts.
Asked about the widespread popularity of the signal, Gunraj credits social media as a powerful means for people to build awareness in a way that reminds her of the #MeToo movement. While she never expected it to reach such heights, she isn't surprised.
"I don't think we had a sense of that scale and the scope of how big it was going to get. But it doesn't surprise me, because GBV is such a common experience — Canada included," she said. "#MeToo taught us that when people don't have other avenues to share what happened to them and don't find justice, they will find their own ways of communicating and support one another using things like Twitter and social media."
Now that people know how to use it, the next challenge is to ensure everyone can respond to it appropriately to prevent violence from escalating in the first place.
This Nov. 25, in honour of the United Nations' International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the Canadian Women's Foundation launched a Signal Responder campaign to equip communities with the necessary knowledge to effectively intervene in a situation involving GBV. The campaign features a range of resources, including a signal responder's guide and a website.
You can support the Canadian Women's Foundation by signing up to become a Signal Responder here.
Women’s rights are human rights — and they must be promoted and protected. This 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, from Nov. 25 to Dec. 10, we’re asking Global Citizens to join us for our #16Days Challenge, to take a simple action each day that will help you learn more about women’s rights, bodily autonomy, and gender violence online.
You’ll start important conversations with your loved ones, advocate on social media for women’s and girls’ right to their own bodies, support women-owned businesses in your community, sign petitions to support bodily autonomy, and more. Find out more about the #16Days Challenge and start taking action here.