Skip to main content

If you saw someone holding out their hand, with the thumb tucked into the palm and fingers folded over the thumb, would you know what it meant?

Fortunately for a 16-year-old girl in Kentucky, who was making that hand sign while a passenger in a car, another driver recognized it as a signal of distress and called the police. The sheriff’s deputies didn’t know the signal, but they still stopped the car with the girl in it, realizing something might be wrong. Something was wrong, and the 61-year-old driver of the car was arrested for unlawful imprisonment. According to The New York Times, he’s also facing a child pornography charge.

There are a few people to thank in this scenario: The quick-witted girl who used the signal, the alert motorist who recognized it, the deputies who decided to investigate, and perhaps above all the Canadian Women’s Foundation, which last year developed the sign so that people who were experiencing abuse could quietly ask for help without alerting their abuser.

The Violence at Home Signal for Help was created in April, 2020, in anticipation of the dangerous conditions the pandemic would create. “We saw that gender-based violence would probably be on the rise in the beginning of the pandemic, because it always rises in times of disaster and crisis,” said Andrea Gunraj, the foundation’s vice-president of public engagement. They also realized that we’d be relying on video calls more, since we were trapped in our homes, and the distress signal could be used subtly in that context. Interestingly, the young users of TikTok have been some of the distress signal’s best pollinators, creating clever videos to demonstrate its use.

But as Ms. Gunraj points out, the distress signal is only one of many signals that women experiencing violence might display. Other countries have similar campaigns where, for example, a person who’s being abused can approach a pharmacist with a safe word. There have been cases in the United States where a woman will call 911 pretending to order a pizza, hoping that the dispatcher understands the ruse.

Most of the signals aren’t so overt, though, and certainly not as well known. Intimate partner violence is still a crisis cloaked in silence and shame. It is profoundly underreported to authorities, often for very good reasons. That makes it even more crucial for people in the community – coworkers, friends, family, medical professionals – to have a better understanding of gender-based violence. They need to know what it looks like – because often it looks quite surprising – and how to respond when they do recognize it.

The information is out there, thanks to people who work in the sector. The problem is that this information doesn’t get widely shared or talked about. I mean eww, who wants to talk about domestic violence? Well, all of us, ideally. Otherwise that cage of shame never gets broken and someone is trapped inside forever.

Women’s Crisis Services of Waterloo, Ont., for example, has an excellent podcast called She is Your Neighbour, and a recurring theme is the ways that shame and silence allow abuse to continue in the dark. (I was a guest on one of the episodes, talking about reporting on gender-based violence.)

The Waterloo shelter also has developed a helpful plan for both recognizing what it calls woman abuse, and for bringing people together to talk about how to end it. The signs may seem surprising, if you only think of abuse as a punch in the face: Is one partner belittling, for example, and throwing out insults all the time? Does he try to isolate his partner from her friends and family? Is he jealous and controlling? Does one spouse control all the finances, refusing to give their partner access to money?

Recognizing the red flags is only the first step. The real work comes next, and it’s not surprising that people feel confused or uneasy about how they’re supposed to respond if they suspect that harm is taking place. One thing you can do is learn how to be an effective bystander, like the motorist on that road in Kentucky. I took a free, one-hour online course offered by educator Julie Lalonde on how to help if you see someone being harassed, and it was hugely useful as it explained how to employ the “five Ds” – distract, delegate, document, delay and direct.

There are any number of ways to help someone who’s being abused, and it doesn’t begin or end with calling the authorities. In fact, that person may not want the authorities involved, and may just want a safe and respectful place to be heard. Or she may want advice on how to leave, or where she can find professional help.

To that end, the Canadian Women’s Foundation is launching a follow-up to the distress signal campaign with one that teaches people how to respond, and how to pick up on unspoken signs early on. Later this month, the foundation will have materials and training modules on its website to guide people through next steps if they do suspect someone needs help.

“We’re hoping to start shifting our culture so that we’re not waiting for people to make signs or signals, and actually being more pro-active in a non-judgmental way,” Ms. Gunraj said. “We know that people don’t report or don’t say anything to their friends and family because they’re afraid that they’re going to be judged and blamed. So we want to shift from a culture of blaming and judgment to one where we’re saying, ‘No, you’re supported. We’re going to be with you no matter what. And it it’s not your fault.’ ”

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe