Under the guidelines of the coronavirus lockdown, nation leaders have urged us to stay at home often using the phrase, 'Stay Home, Stay Safe' which is a little ironic as they're forgetting that a home may not be synonymous to a safe environment for many people across the world. What one calls 'home' might be a prison situation for domestic abuse victims. National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data indicate that over 30% of Indian women have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused by their husbands at some point in their lives. Indian women are silently suffering from domestic abuse in the confines of their homes and most of them are unable to report it as 86% of women who experience domestic violence do not seek help in India as reported by the Wire.
An alarming statistic showed that between March 25 and May 31, 2020, when the first lockdown was imposed in India, 1,477 complaints of domestic violence were made by women. This 68-day period recorded more complaints than those received between March and May in the previous 10 years.
Domestic abuse against women isn't just a rising problem in India but a global concern as numerous cases are being reported in the US, Europe, Australia and Canada since the lockdowns have been imposed. According to television broadcaster, ENCA, South Africa had more than 120,000 victims who dialled the national helpline for abused women and children in the first three weeks after the lockdown started on March 27 - double the usual volume of calls.
Australia witnessed a surge in Google searches about domestic violence by 75 per cent since the first recorded COVID-19 cases in the state as reported by 7News.
Even Canada that ranks as one of the best performers on the Women, Peace, and Security Index saw a disturbing rise in gender-based domestic violence and 1 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.
Amidst such disturbing complaints, the Canadian Women's Foundation came forward with a unique secret hand signal to help women report domestic violence discreetly. As part of their campaign, they’ve uploaded a video to demonstrate how it can be used. In their tutorial video, a woman on a video call asks her friend to share a banana bread recipe, and while speaking she discreetly lifts her hand and fashions the hand signal to ask for help. In the background, her partner is shown indicating that it isn’t safe for her to talk about the abuse openly. Her friend on the video call recognises the signal but continues the pretend conversation to keep up the ruse.
What is the domestic abuse hand signal?
This signal for help is a one-handed gesture that women can use while on video calls to communicate they are feeling threatened or may be in danger.
To make the signal, you must hold your hand up to the camera with your thumb tucked into your palm, and then fold your fingers down trapping your thumb under your fingers.
The Canadian Women's Foundation created the signal in response to the rising accounts of violence in abusive relationships faced by frontline workers, since the COVID 19 lockdown. In other areas, they've observed fewer women reporting cases possibly due to the fear of being overheard by their abuser.
According to a study, increased domestic abuse can be linked to multiple stressors such as unemployment, salary-cuts and food shortages due to which the perpetrator may inflict violence on the victim as a way to release their frustration. Andrea Gunraj, Vice President of Public Engagement at the Canadian Women's Foundation, tells the Refinery, "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.”
Gunraj adds that social isolation increases the risk of being harmed because there’s nobody around to reach out to. "I think that’s a big thing in Canada, given the landmass we have in Canada and how isolated people can be and how far away these services are spread out across the country,” she continues.
What do you do if someone sends you the signal?
Despite the availability of domestic abuse helplines, some victims may feel hesitant to speak to strangers and prefer to confide in a close friend or family member. So, if you find yourself in a situation where a friend tells you they're feeling threatened, here’s what you should you do.
According to Andrea Gunraj, vice-president of public engagement for the Canadian Women’s Foundation, here are some helpful responses:
- If a friend were to use this signal while on a video chat, try emailing, texting, or calling your friend back so you aren’t on speaker as that could tip off their abuser.
- Ask them Yes/No question like if they want you to call a helpline number or if they need shelter or if you should look into other helpful services. Yes and no questions eliminates the chances of them being caught by their abuser when speaking about the abuse.
- Let them know that you’re there for them in case they need you, at any point in the day.
- You can refer them to domestic abuse helplines in India here.
Some say the campaign could backfire
The secret hand signal is trending in several social media such as Twitter and Instagram and even TikTok users are spreading awareness about the domestic abuse hand signal. Social media has been a great vehicle for generating awareness about violence against women whether it was through the recent worldwide ‘Black and White photo challenge’ or the 2019 ‘I didn’t want to die’ campaign in Russia, however, for this particular campaign, it may have a drawback.
This is due to the fact that code words and signals that become popular risk being recognised by the abuser as well.
“If you know about the signals there is a potential for the abuser to also know about the signal given that they're out in the public space,” she said. “You want to make sure that you are in as safe a place as possible when you're using it, given that you're probably at home with them. The ability to cover your tracks is also important.”
As an alternative, she suggests victims of domestic abuse and people in an abusive relationship to create their own code words and signals and share it with a 'small and intimate group' of people who are close to them instead of relying on strangers on social media.
Andrea Gunraj, vice president of public engagement for the Foundation said that she acknowledges the drawbacks as says this is a new tool, not a solution. “This is designed to help give somebody a tool that they can silently, and without leaving a digital trace, indicate that they need help,” she said.
Other similar campaigns to discreetly report domestic violence
Before the secret hand signal, there was an intriguing social media campaign using coded language by Calyn Blackburn asking women to send her a message asking her if she is still selling make-up to signal domestic abuse.
Her post read, “If you are currently stuck in isolation with someone who is abusive, shoot me a message asking if I’m still selling makeup.”
“If you message specifically about liquid eyeliner, I will ask for your address,” the message continues, adding that the address is “for shipping [wink emoji]” and that she will contact law enforcement. An abuse survivor herself, Blackburn was shocked to see hundreds of comments, messages and more than 74,000 shares on her post.
A similar campaign took place in France during the initial COVID 19 restrictions, with 'mask 19' becoming a codeword that women would tell pharmacies to reveal threats of domestic violence. The campaign started after an incident of a woman in a french city who walked into a pharmacy not to buy medicines but to report her abuse to the pharmacist. Soon after, the police arrested the woman's husband as reported by CNN.
The dire situation of domestic violence against women in India
The horrors of the pandemic don't end at the doorstep, for most women they continue inside the place they consider a shelter. Additionally, pandemics often deepen gender inequality towards women as reported by Bingedaily and India is witnessing it in the present.
On 3rd April, reports emerged of a 42-year-old man in India who allegedly murdered his wife, Savithramma, in front of their daughter, in a fit of rage, suspecting her of infidelity. This happened days after the family was quarantined in a temple in Dodderi in Karnataka following the first nationwide lockdown announced by the Indian government to contain the COVID-19 pandemic
The lockdown was a necessary action to minimize the spread of the deadly coronavirus, however, we cannot deny the social ramifications of such an order.
The data by the National Commission for Women (NCW) shows a two-fold increase in gender-based violence from 116 (March 2-8) to 257 (March 23-April 1). Another alarming statistic that brings forth the harrowing reality of abuse in Indian women's lives.
This rampant abuse can be attributed to men normalising abuse in their families. India's National Family Health Survey reveals that close to 42% of men agree that a husband is justified in hitting or beating his wife. It is hardly surprising then that a third of Indian women have experienced some form of physical, emotional or sexual violence in their lifetime.
Financial pressures and economic crises can increase the risk of domestic abuse
With the mental, emotional and economic pressures of the COVID 19 pandemic, forcing families to stay cooped up together in small spaces can dramatically increase the risks of interpersonal violence and abuse.
For example, men that are losing their jobs are releasing their frustration on their wives or partners through violence; a selfish act of robbing the woman of her mental well-being. Women, however, haven't resorted to the same even though they were among the first ones to lose their jobs in the informal sector. According to the 2011 International Conference on Economics and Finance Research, in India, almost 94 per cent of the total women workers are engaged in the informal sector.
With job loses, abuse and the virus fear, women are fighting multiple battles but now, don't even have their social support to fall back on.
Studies have shown that domestic abuse victims often rely on their friends and family for emotional support and even temporary housing to escape the abuse. However, the current circumstance has isolated them from their support network leaving them to care for their bruises and scars on their own.
Even calling a helpline may not be a viable option for these women as getting access to a phone and calling for help or reporting violence might be a challenge in itself as men tend to control their device usage.
Odds are, most domestic violence victims won't make it to the official statistics as a survey revealed that nearly 75% of those who reported domestic violence did not seek help from anyone.
Even though there is an official statement by the National Commission on Women about the issue of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic to encourage women to speak out, it is not adequate.
Women's organisations are capable of much more and must reach out to more women with online campaigns while keeping in mind the plight of technologically disconnected and isolated women as well.
One such initiative is the 'red dot' campaign by a non-profit organisation called Women's Entrepreneurs for Transformation (WEFT). Similar to the secret hand signal in Canada, victims are asked to draw a red dot on their palm to ask for help and alert friends and family about possible threats of abuse.
The Red Dot initiative for domestic abuse victims in India
In April, social entrepreneur and founder of WEFT, Iti Rawat received an email of a women's picture with a red dot on her palm accompanied by the message, "ma'am, I need your help." The red dot indicated that the woman was a victim of domestic abuse and her message is self-explanatory.
Lanched by WEFT, the initiative has received several complaints from women across the country and provided support to them, said Rawat, as reported by NDTV.
Rawat talks about a particular case to show how the helpline can assist women. She said the woman was caught at home with her husband who was unemployed since the lockdown.
Rawat explains, "He was beating the wife, took away all her savings and was assaulting her in front of her son," as reported by NDTV. "She contacted WEFT through the red dot initiative. We supported her with food and helped her," she continued.
Much like the woman who contacted her, she wishes for other Indian women to use the helpline too and one day, hopes to see the symbol spread across the world as well. Rawat says that she plans to make the 'red dot' initiative a global symbol for domestic violence. "This way many women will break their silence and would be able to lead better lives," Rawat said.
She tells the NDTV that she has been in touch with the National Commission for Women and UN Women to take the initiative forward.
But before global recognition, she wants Indians to recognise the signal. Rawat said she wants the red dot initiative to be a citizen-led movement and in order to reach that goal, WEFT plans to create videos on social media so that people start identifying the symbol as an indicator of domestic violence.
What to do if you receive the 'red dot' signal?
Rawat explains if you receive the 'red dot' signal, you can either get in touch with WEFT through social media or email email@example.com or you can also call 181 which is the toll-free number to get support.
It's disheartening to realise that for some people, homes are four-walled prisons rather than a sanctuary as they should be. The signals may seem idealistic to some but this is a step in the right direction to gradually problem-solve a layered issue such as domestic abuse.