The Canadian-made Signal That Can Save Lives

In November 2021, a 16-year-old American girl was kidnapped in North Carolina. She was rescued two states away, in Kentucky, in part because of a simple hand gesture she had been showing other motorists driving on the same highways as her captor.

One driver took notice and called 911. Police caught up with the vehicle carrying the girl and arrested her kidnapper.

“I really believe that this girl’s life was saved,” Deputy Gilbert Acciardo of the Laurel County, KY, Sheriff’s Office told news outlets, according to Florida Today.

While the hand signal the girl had used to alert others she was in trouble was not invented specifically for abductions, it was created by a Canadian women’s organization to help save lives.

The Canadian Women’s Foundation developed the Signal for Help to give women experiencing domestic violence a way to ask for help while most of the world was living in isolation during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic. The organization wanted something simple yet distinct that women could show during a videoconference. 

The result was an easy, one-handed, three-move gesture: 

  1. Start with one hand with the palm facing outwards and the fingers pointing up
  2. Cross the thumb over the palm
  3. Fold the rest of the fingers down over the thumb

The signal represents that, just as the thumb is trapped by the other fingers, the person flashing it is trapped in an abusive situation. It isn’t a request to call the authorities immediately; rather, it asks that someone check in with the person displaying the signal at a safe time and manner.

signal for help

When the Canadian Women’s Foundation introduced the Signal for Help in April of 2020, partner organizations and media helped promote it. The signal spread particularly fast on social media, especially on TikTok. Its virulence on the video social media app led the World Bank and the United States-based Women’s Funding Network to also promote it. Two-and-a-half years later, the Canadian Women’s Foundation says the signal is now recognized in 45 countries.

The foundation continues to encourage learning not only to recognize the signal and what it means, but how to respond to someone flashing the signal. In late 2021, it launched the Signal for Help Responder’s Action Guide, which helps extended family, friends, coworkers and neighbours recognize signs of abuse, and gives advice on how to respond in a supportive way without stigma.

So far, more than 40,000 people have downloaded the guide to get tips on how to check in safely with someone who may be experiencing intimate partner violence, how to respond supportively, and what resources are available for help. Those who sign up to receive the guide also receive offers of continued training and further information for taking action to help end intimate partner violence. 

The Signal for Help and the Responder’s Action Guide, as well as more information on intimate partner violence, are available on the Canadian Women’s Foundation website.

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