A silent signal for victims of domestic violence to alert others to their situation has gone viral on social media as coronavirus restrictions put sufferers at greater risk.
The signal can be given discreetly during video calls for individuals to express their immediate need for help in a way that is hidden and unable to be traced by their abuser.
A TikTok by user forsure7, based in Canada, demonstrates the signal in a video uploaded to the social media site, indicating to a woman on her video call that she needs help.
The women discuss a banana bread recipe briefly before the woman on the main screen holds up her right hand, places her thumb inside her palm, then scrunches it in a fist.
A look of terror then sweeps across her face as a male figure appears in the background.
The video appeared to be a public service message rather than a legitimate call for help, with the screen panning to a message stating: “the violence at home signal for help”.
The signal was promoted by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, however is being spruiked for its universal accessibility.
In Australia, at least 11 women in have died from domestic violence related incidents since coronavirus restrictions were imposed in March.
While widely accepted as a potentially life-saving tool for victims of domestic violence, some have argued the public nature of the message could put people in even more danger.
“This being shown everywhere kinda does the opposite of help. The bad people will learn the signs and make it worse for you,” one person wrote in a comment to the video.
“Oh my, now the abusers will know about this. I wish everyone would just treat everyone fairly and with kindness,” another said.
Others were more confident the signal was an important tool for victims.
“This could really help someone that needs it,” one wrote, “thank you for sharing this and spreading awareness,” another said.
American signer Billie Eilish also shared a post of the video to her 64 million followers on Instagram.
‘It is critical this is done safely for the victim’
Delia Donovan, Interim Chief Executive Officer at Domestic Violence NSW, said while education on domestic violence was positive, messages needed to be conveyed in a safe manner.
“We fully support providing awareness and education of domestic violence with the community and with the friends, families and workplaces of victims,” Ms Donovan told Yahoo News Australia.
“However, it is critical that this is done safely for the victim and for the person being asked to provide the support or response. Safety planning is critical, it needs to be thorough and evidence based, part of which includes ensuring that the person responding knows how to do this in a way that has been agreed and is safe.”
She said the video could be problematic is the person receiving the signal did not know what it meant.
“Our concern with this particular video as it stands (we do not know if this is part of a broader communication/campaign) is that it is not clear if the person receiving the message is aware of the woman’s safety plan and therefore what action they need to take.
“Taking the wrong action e.g. calling the police, approaching the perpetrator or their friends/family could put the woman in real and possibly fatal danger, as well as possibly endangering the responder or other bystanders.
“Additionally, a widely recognised signal that is in the public domain is also most likely to be known by the perpetrator and in many situations where there is excessive and coercive control the opportunity for the victim to use the signal would be vastly reduced and/or potentially very dangerous.”
What you should do if you see the signal
Vice-president of public engagement for the Canadian Women's Foundation Andrea Gunraj explained what people should do if they notice some displaying the signal on a call.
“If I see this on a call, I would know to go and check in with that person — safely. 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’,” she said.
There had been a notable increase in calls to emergency services from domestic violence victims since coronavirus lockdowns in NSW.
The biggest increases were in Wagga Wagga, Newcastle, Central Sydney, St George and Orange.
A Senate committee inquiry into domestic violence in Australia was criticised last month after being finalised without accepting submissions, holding public hearings or making any recommendations.
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