A simple gesture to help abused women

Who: The Canadian Women’s Foundation, with Juniper Park\TBWA.

What: “Signal for Help,” an online campaign to help those trapped in self-isolation with an abusive partner.

When & Where: The campaign launched April 14 through CWF’s social channels. There’s no paid media behind it, but it’s getting lots of traction on social and through mainstream media coverage.

Why: Because disaster situations often lead to a surge in violence against women. Countries where the pandemic hit sooner, such as China and Spain, have reported dramatic increases in gender-based violence.

It can be difficult for those living with an abusive partner to ask for help, because their abuser often monitors their device to ensure they aren’t sharing what is happening at home.

“This new reality requires new methods of communication to help those facing gender-based violence,” said CWF president and CEO Paulette Senior.

How: A simple hand gesture—hand facing the camera, fingers extended with the thumb tucked into the palm and then bringing the fingers down over the thumb—that can be given during a video chat as a way to ask for help without the abusive partner knowing.

The idea came to Juniper Park\TBWA chief creative officer Graham Lang during a call with TBWA’s global creative council. Someone brought up the issue of partner abuse during the pandemic, and Lang pretty quickly thought about the hand signal as a solution. They took the idea to CWF, who Juniper Park had worked with in the past.

Their first idea was to use the American Sign Language sign for help, but that’s a two-handed gesture and they needed something that could be made by a person while holding their phone.

CWF also suggested it would be better if they came up with an entirely new sign, said Lang. “One that is multinational, and not attached to anything or anyone. So we took that back and came up with this idea of being trapped. The idea of tucking your thumb as a metaphor for being trapped.”

Beyond Canada and the pandemic: “I think it’s an idea that exists beyond COVID, this is just really the first push of it,” said Lang. The gesture was introduced in the U.S. on Tuesday through a group called the Women’s Funding Network and covered by Vogue.

Spain, France are Australia are all looking to adopt it. “It seems to be a thing that really important organizations and people want to get behind,” said Lang. “Our idea is to institutionalize it as a safety measure. This is certainly not a launch and abandon idea for COVID… The idea is for it to become as widely known as a thumbs up, I’m feeling good.”


David Brown