Social-distancing is helping to decrease the spread of COVID-19, but staying home can present danger to anyone living with abusive partners or family members, who now have greater ability to monitor and control their victims. One in 10 Canadian women said they were very or extremely concerned about the possibility of domestic violence during the pandemic, according to a recent Statistics Canada survey about the social impacts of coronavirus. A new campaign by the Canadian Women’s Foundation hopes to give them a safe way to reach out for support.
Signal For Help is a one-handed hand gesture women can use while on a video call to alert the person they are talking to that they feel threatened. The signal involves holding your hand up to the camera with your thumb tucked into your palm, and then folding your fingers down and trapping your thumb in your fingers.
“If I see this on a call, I would know to go and check in with that person — safely,” says Andrea Gunraj, vice-president of public engagement for the Canadian Women’s Foundation. If a friend were to use this signal while on a video chat, Gunraj suggests emailing, texting, or calling your friend back so you aren’t on speaker, and asking yes or no questions (would you like me to call 911; do you need me to call a shelter; should I look into some services for you, etc.) so they don’t have to vocalize their fears to a potential abuser. “It’s just letting them know that ‘I’m here for you, I saw you use the signal, I know what that means, and I can help hook you up to support.’”
The hidden signal is similar to the UK’s “Ask For Angela” campaign — where, if you’re on a date in a restaurant or bar and you feel threatened, you can ask staff for Angela and they will step in.
The creation of the signal was in response to feedback from frontline service and support workers. In some cases, these social workers have witnessed more instances of intimate partner violence since social-distancing for COVID-19 started; in other areas they’ve noticed fewer women coming forward to report cases, possibly because they’re at home with their abusers and don’t have the option to.
Research shows that gender-based violence may increase following disasters because of increased stressors such as concerns about job losses, reduced income, and food shortages. “These kinds of stressors, when they’re added to the risk factors of gender-based violence — controlling behaviour, jealousy, misogyny — that’s when the violence increases,” says Gunraj.
Even without a global pandemic, instances of gender-based violence in Canada are quite high: Every six days a woman in Canada is killed by her partner, and more than two-thirds of us know a woman who has experienced physical or sexual abuse. This is especially critical in a time where households are quarantining together and family violence poses a higher risk (female children are nearly five times more affected by this).
Marginalized women, especially those who live in rural communities, are at a much greater risk, Gunraj adds. Indigenous women, for example, are killed six times the rate of non-Indigenous women. “Social isolation increases the risk of being harmed because there’s nobody around to reach out to," she says. "I think that’s a big thing in Canada, given the land mass we have in Canada and how isolated people can be and how far away these services are spread out across the country.”
To make a donation in support of women and girls through this crisis, please visit the Canadian Women’s Foundation Tireless Together Fund.
Ifyou are experiencing domestic violence, please visit the Ending Violence Associationof Canada to find a local hotline. In theevent of an emergency, call 911.