Because a Toronto-born gesture saved a teen’s life

Because a Toronto-born gesture saved a teen’s life

The story behind a hand signal that’s preventing gender-based violence

Photographs courtesy of the Canadian Women’s Foundation

Last November, a 61-year-old man in North Carolina abducted a 16-year-old girl. As he drove her through Kentucky, she held her hand up to passing cars, crossing her thumb over her palm, then covering it with her fingers, mimicking a closing trap. One savvy driver recognized the signal from TikTok and called 911, which led to her rescue. The life-saving gesture, known as the Signal for Help, was conceived by the Canadian Women’s Foundation in Toronto. We spoke to Andrea Gunraj, the foundation’s VP of public engagement, about the power of a helping hand.

What prompted the foundation to develop the Signal for Help?
Gender-based violence spikes in times of crisis and disaster, so we knew we’d see more of it during the pandemic. We work with people across the country who deliver intervention and prevention programs, and they were seeing a spike in calls. People were trapped at home with abusers. People are also on video calls more than ever before. That’s where the idea for a signal came in. We wanted to develop a simple gesture that you could make on a video call without leaving a digital trace. Around that time, an ad company named Juniper Park/TBWA, who shared our concerns, came to us and said, “What can we do to address this?”

How did you decide on the physical configuration of the hand and fingers? 
We workshopped a lot of different ideas. It needed to be an easy-to-make, relatively discreet gesture that wasn’t already represented in any form of sign language; we spoke with folks in the deaf community to make sure that it wouldn’t create confusion. We also wanted it to be one-handed in case people were using it while holding a cell phone. We found that “palm up, trapping the thumb” was a perfect move.

The signal took off internationally, particularly among young people on TikTok. Were you surprised?
In some sense, definitely. We’ve never seen anything go viral like this when it comes to gender-based violence; it’s usually a hidden story. But another part of me wasn’t surprised, because some users with big social media presences were saying, “Wow, I am struggling right now at home during lockdown. I can’t imagine what it would be like to deal with abuse at the same time.” The response we saw came from empathy. I also have to credit the organizations doing gender-based violence work who shared it with their communities.

There’s a positive side to the signal’s virality, but there’s an obvious sad side, too. 
There’s a part of me that feels like, Yes, finally, we’re talking about it in mainstream circles, not just in small pockets of people who experience abuse. But at the same time, it is really concerning. The fact that we need to have this in the first place shows that we’re not doing enough to address gender-based violence. It just means that we need to treat the signal as a jumping-off point. We need to do more.

Like what? 
We followed up Signal for Help with a campaign that gives people resources, on their phone, that explain how to respond to any sign of abuse. We know education doesn’t happen in one shot, but we need to learn how to respond to abuse in non-judgmental, supportive ways that say, “I will help you no matter what.” Chances are, given 44 per cent of Canadian women experience gender-based violence in their lifetimes, you know somebody who needs it.

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