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How the 'Signal for Help' Became An International Tool for Abuse Victims During Lockdown and Beyond

April 14, 2021

One Year of Activism

March 2020: A New Hand Sign

Women facing violence in their own homes are not free to do as they choose. Their communications are controlled and monitored, and they have little if any privacy. Now imagine how much worse that is in lockdown. There is no escape and no reprieve that life before may have afforded.

The Canadian Women’s Foundation was bracing for a spike in gender-based violence as lockdown made it more difficult for those at risk of abuse to safely reach out for help. To respond, we invented Signal for Help: a silent, covert one-handed signal someone can use on a video call to communicate that they need help. It was intentionally designed as a one-handed sign that a person at risk can make while holding a mobile phone with their other hand.

It involves holding your hand up to the camera with your thumb tucked into your palm, and then folding your fingers down and symbolically trapping your thumb in your fingers. Intensive research was done prior to its release to ensure that it was not in conflict with any other hand signals and didn’t mean anything specific in international sign languages.

Our strategic unlock was inspired by our collective and near instantaneous shift to video calls. It seemed that everyone wanted so badly to see one other, that overnight we adopted this technology. Everyone was using video: Facetime, Zoom, Google Meet, you name it. It became as ubiquitous in our lives as phone calls and texting.

This also gave us an opportunity to help by creating an untraceable and unmistakable way for women to ask for help when at risk of violence.

April 2020: One Social Post

On April 14th we went live with a social post from the Canadian Women’s Foundation channels in both English and French using #SignalforHelp. The posts drove to a resource page on the Canadian Women’s Foundation’s website, featuring a downloadable social toolkit in English, French, and Spanish, as well as FAQs, so that anyone could own, and everyone could amplify. It was created using a simplistic design system that highlighted the two-step process required to make the signal, what to do if you see it, and how to get help.

The public response was immediate. Only a few days after going live the post had racked up over 6k shares on Facebook, 1k RTs on Twitter, 5k likes on Instagram, and been shared by notable figures from all walks of life. Most notably, author Margaret Atwood and Federal Minister Maryam Monsef.

Within a week, the campaign had garnered support from dozens of women's organizations across Canada and had been covered by mainstream news outlets such as CTV Toronto. Its rapid ascension in culture resulted in it being shared in countries outside of Canada, especially south of the border.

Two weeks later on April 28, we partnered with the Women’s Funding Network and launched the initiative in the US. A story in Vogue followed. Then a share from famous female rights champion Carrie A. Goldberg and actress Amanda Seyfried.

May 2020: A Public Service Announcement

To further convey how someone can use the signal and respond to seeing it used, in real-time, we created a PSA. It launched online on May 13th, and in the video, one woman asks her friend for a banana bread recipe before casually displaying the signal over a call.

Thanks to some collective generosity, we had media donated and it ran on major Canadian TV networks including CBC and CTV.

June 2020: From TV to TikTok

According to Rashda (user @forsure7), the PSA came on just as she was turning off the TV and heading to bed. Not only did she stop to watch – she decided to share it on TikTok. In her words, “the ad really hit me because the message was so powerful. I decided to rewind it, record it, and make a video of it for TikTok because I thought it was really important to share.”

Her post went viral. Within 24 hours, it had 600k likes and 115k shares. Users responded with comments like, “‘I wish this was around when I was in an abusive relationship’ and ‘This is a really important message, we are going to share it’.”

Inquiries to adapt and launch the signal came flooding in from organizations from countries such as Spain, Chile, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa… the list goes on.

Following its explosion on the platform, the post then made its way to Instagram resulting in it being shared by celebrities Billie Eilish and Hailey Bieber. In what is a demonstration of TikTok’s cultural influence, the virality story was covered by major international outlets like News.com.au and The Sun UK.

July 2020: Canada’s Gift to the World

That’s how we always saw it. Signal for Help was created as an unbranded tool which could be easily adapted and scaled by anyone and everyone. With the web toolkit, we were providing organizations and individuals around the world with the freedom to take what we had created and make it their own. The hope was that this would manifest into awareness for the issue in various communities globally.

As the signal’s influence grew outside of Canada more began to adopt it. Each taking their own unique approach to sharing and spreading the word.

For example, in Argentina, artist Coral Campopiano launched the signal by writing a song that mentioned it, rallying musicians from across the country to support the initiative, and raising awareness of the campaign through media interviews and social posts. It’s because of individuals like her that the signal has grown into what it is today: an international sign for help.

August 2020: 96

We received survey results from our clients at the Canadian Women’s Foundation that revealed 96 of 1,509 individuals had seen someone use the Signal for Help.

That number had a big impact on us as a team. A simple idea we had helped develop was making a difference to a serious issue affecting hundreds of thousands around the world.

November 2020: Art Share

One of the first pieces of coverage on the Signal for Help came from lifestyle outlet, Refinery29. The story featured a visual from artist Yazmin Bucher - it was a beautiful interpretation of the hand signal. This, in addition to dozens of adaptations being shared across social media, gave us an idea to continue to help raise awareness of the signal during the pandemic’s second wave and reach a new audience.

Coinciding with the National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we launched “Art Share.” It involved engaging artists across Canada to put their own spin on art to share the Signal for Help. 16 artists kindly volunteered and donated their time and skill to create unique artistic interpretations of the signal, which were shared across Instagram in a gallery format. It was activism through art.

January 2021: A Famous YouTuber Uses the Signal

In January of this year, a notable Syrian YouTuber, Om Sayf, used the hand signal in one of her videos and fans immediately recognized it - resulting in authorities following up with her.

Thankfully, she was confirmed safe after an interview with BBC Arabia.

March 2021: Crisis Response in the UK

Over the last 11 months, the signal has morphed into a symbol synonymous with anti-domestic violence activism and we’re only beginning to see its impact.

It’s continuously showing up and being used as a response mechanism to crises. For example, following the tragic events which transpired in the UK in March, the signal was shared broadly by media, organizations, police forces, and institutions such as the Liverpool Lime St. Railway Station, as a tool for those at risk to use to get help.

April 2021: A Calendar Year

A year on, and the signal has been adopted by 200+ women’s organizations, across 40+ countries in 20+ languages, and garnered 1 billion+ impressions. It has been endorsed by emergency services, governments, law enforcement, and health professionals around the globe, including being mentioned in the peer-reviewed Canadian Medical Association Journal as a tool to help.

“It is incredibly inspiring to see how Signal for Help has helped millions of people around the world to challenge gender-based violence and support survivors of violence during this troubling time. People with different experiences and of ages, backgrounds, languages, and ethnicities. It has been an incredible success,” says Andrea Gunraj, Vice President of Engagement at the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

In fact, according to CityNews Toronto, during the pandemic “cases of domestic abuse have been on the rise and many were reported by women who used the signal to seek out help.”

A signal and campaign that originated in Canada, has quickly spread around the globe, showcasing that when called to action, we as people want to know how to show up, we want to be useful, and help the people in our lives.