It is a simple hand gesture to signal trouble launched by the Canadian Women’s Foundation in April 2020, during the peak of early COVID-19 when more folks were in lockdown, perhaps with an abusive partner.
The Signal for Help quickly spread like wildfire around the world.
It has been shared across 45 countries and 20 languages, according to the Foundation.
Why is a signal needed?
In 2018, according to Statistics Canada, 44% of women reported experiencing some form of psychological, physical, or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetimes.
Conditions due to the pandemic — such as being isolated at home with an abuser and having less access to resources — made things worse.
During the first two years of the pandemic, of the 557 Canadian facilities housing survivors of domestic violence, 49 % indicated they received an increase in crisis calls, and 53% reported an increase in those seeking support.
How to use the signal
The Signal For Help was initially meant as a tool for those enduring gender-based violence to use during video calls, but it can be used anywhere.
The person seeking help puts their palm to the camera and then folds their thumb into their fingers.
It is not meant to be the only tool for survivors, but rather one that might work in some situations, stressed Andrea Gunraj, vice-president of public engagement at the Foundation.
Couldn't an abuser monitor for the signal?
With the signal being spread far and wide, Gunraj said it is reasonable to assume some perpetrators will know about it.
"We don't know that they're not watching for this," she said. "That's where we have to reiterate that this is going to be a tool that's helpful for some people some of the time .... For the people who might think ‘I need to reach out for help, but I'm nervous that somebody's going to recognize this’ or ‘I'm going to get in trouble,’ we always say don't use the tool. Use another tool. But do reach out in a way that is safe for you; you are the expert of your safety in this moment."
Here’s what to do if you see someone use the signal
If someone makes this symbol and you know them, it is an invitation to make contact again when it is safer for the signaller to talk.
Perhaps text the person something generic that is a yes or no question.
"I'm here; give me a call whenever you can," is an example Gunraj suggested, adding it is more likely someone you know will use the signal rather than a stranger.
"Because people will reach out to people they know and trust with these issues, she said.
"If you do see [a stranger] using it out of a moving car or out of a window, out of a door. If you see them in public using it, they are in immediate danger, so call 911 or emergency services right away. I think that's a completely appropriate response because that person is saying I'm in imminent danger. I need your help right now."
Whether it is a conversation sparked by the use of the signal, a co-worker suddenly divulging that they were hit, or a friend hinting that their partner is verbally abusive, the key to responding is to be kind, caring, and non-judgmental, Gunraj said.
"In a way that centres that person, that recognizes that they're in a tough situation, and may be facing trauma; they may be facing a lot of other issues and problems all at once. And your role is to support them to get the help that they need and take the lead in that,” she said.
Gunraj noted that it is important to let the person lead in what they need and want — not tell them what to do. If you can, be armed with local resources a survivor could access if someone in need approaches you.
In Squamish, the Howe Sound Women's Centre and Sea to Sky Community Services are key organizations survivors can turn to for help.
"The first thing you can say is, 'I'm sorry that happened. How can I support you?'" Gunraj said.
"It is very simple, and that allows the person to say, 'You know what, I just want you to listen right now,' or allows that person to say, 'Please call a shelter for me. I don't know where to go.'"
Don't ask what they did to cause the abuse or say things like, "Why don't you/didn't you leave?"
To learn more about what you can do as a responder, go to signalresponder.ca for a guide.
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