Codewords, signals, and creative ways to fight gender-based violence during Covid19

Codewords, signals, and creative ways to fight gender-based violence during Covid19

The ongoing rise of Covid19 has exponentially increased the number of gender-based violence cases worldwide. WHO attributes the increase to more exposure to abusers at home, isolation from social support networks, limited access to critical services, and escalating stress.  As the stay home directives prevail to curb the pandemic, self-isolation is proving to be less safe for survivors who are now stuck full time with abusers. They are under 24-hour surveillance with their self-safety measures really put to test.

According to UNFPA, COVID-19 pandemic is likely to cause a one-third reduction in progress towards ending GBV by 2030. The report states that a 15 million rise of cases is expected for every 3 months the lockdown continues. This shows a big possibility of the pandemic weakening efforts to end GBV through reducing prevention and protective efforts, social services and care.

Now has come a more actionable time than ever when GBV service providers thought outside the box.  They have to come up with creative ways and tools to help survivors. It is no longer business as usual. Creativity and innovation is the new style of how services will be offered going forward.

Previously, most organizations worked with survivors on a face to face basis. But now most of them are embracing social media like WhatsApp, video chat and calls to offer services.  Many are training victims to use code language in texts and chats, and hand signals, among others, to seek help. Since each survivor’s needs may be different, service providers are using varied tools to meet those needs.

A new campaign – Signal For Help – by the Canadian Women’s Foundation hopes to give survivors a safe way to reach out for help.  This is a one-handed gesture women can use while on a video call to alert the person they are talking to that they need help. One holds one’s hand to the camera with the thumb tucked into the palm, they then fold their fingers covering the thumb. Once the other person sees this, they can urgently reach out to them safely to find out what they need and how they want you to support.

A number of governments and GBV service providers are now advising survivors to use code words and numbers to seek for help. Universally, there are registered cases of success of codewords in mitigation of GBV. A case in point is the campaign “ Ask for Angela in the UK, that has been effective in combating sexual violence when someone is on a date. Now Dame Vera Baird, Victims Commissioner for England and Wales, is advocating for a similar campaign to help victims while in lockdown. There is also more awareness on how to call the emergency line 999 and pressing 55 when prompted if you can’t speak. This will confirm it is genuine emergency and police will avail urgent assistance.

In France, a woman walked to a pharmacy store and said the codeword “mask 19”. Later her abusive partner was arrested. A number of supermarkets, pharmacy and other places that deal in essential services are now training their staff to help victims through code communication.

In case the victim suspects the abuser knows the codeword and signal, the communication should be completed with speed and care. This ensures emergency services don’t miss the address. When the codeword or signal is known by one or two trusted friends, it should be consistent and complete. For instance, if the code is “complete homework” those words should never be varied.

The negative with codewords is the fear that abusers might get wind of them. Caution, should therefore, be expressed. They should be developed only within trustworthy and proximate friends.

Most organizations are now using WhatsApp lines to help victims while ensuring the communication is safe and secure. They answer questions, offer free counselling, and advise on medical, legal and safety options. Women are also taught how to send alerts when violence occurs.

In as much as technology persuades virtual communication, two factors need to be mentioned in conclusion here. It would be wrong to presume that everybody has an understanding of relevant technology and access to internet. Indeed, not every victim of GBV may use some of the above innovations. It’s advisable to improvise what might work within their means. The long and short of this is that everyone should use any means possible to communicate any form of GBV. No one should be left behind.

Yet, one must not wear a shoe on the wrong foot. GBV service providers should integrate methods depending on the various circumstances and victims. They should develop kits that are victim friendly.

Do you know someone who is going through GBV?

Share with them the National Hotline in their country for help.