Nova Scotia·Q&A

How secret codes and silent signals are being used to help victims of domestic violence

A Dalhousie University researcher is studying the covert ways victims of domestic violence can seek help, especially during COVID-19 when instances of abuse are on the rise. 

Dalhousie professor studies how agencies have adapted during COVID-19

Lori Weeks from Dalhousie University studied the "silent solutions" people created during the pandemic to support people experiencing abuse. (CBC News)

A Dalhousie University professor is studying the covert ways victims of domestic violence are seeking help during COVID-19 when instances of abuse are on the rise. 

Lori Weeks with the university's School of Nursing hopes that by sharing the tactics used elsewhere, agencies in Nova Scotia can develop their own methods of helping people who are suffering abuse but aren't able to reach out. 

She recently released a report that details some of these silent signals and secret codes, from hand gestures people can use during online meetings to special orders in a grocery store. 

"We thought it would be important to be able to compile that information together and be able to share that with people so that people could get ideas, especially those who work in domestic violence services, who are in a position to be able to support women who experienced abuse," Weeks told CBC's Information Morning

Her conversation with guest host Pauline Dakin has been edited for clarity and length.

How did you figure out what kinds of signals people were being encouraged to use?

We did a search of a media report database, actually, of credible media sources. It was really interesting because that's a way that information is obviously really quickly shared rather than in other types of publications. So we were able to look through that database to find examples around the world, and we were actually really pleased to be able to identify 51 different reports of unique, different types of services and supports that have been developed specifically since the beginning of COVID in March.

Maybe talk a little bit about what these signals look like?

Some of the most interesting things we did find were those things that you could actually do silently. So if someone is actually at home with a person who is an abuser, there's a lot of barriers and challenges to seeking supports in the normal way that you might just, like, picking up a phone and calling or even being able to leave your home. But if you're constantly being watched, then that's really challenging.

If someone is actually at home with a person who is an abuser, there's a lot of barriers and challenges to seeking supports ...- Lori Weeks, Dalhousie University's School of Nursing

There were different categories of initiatives that we identified in our report, in our search of things that were available. But, yeah, the silent solutions, that's what we call that category of things. So ways that women can report abuse when talking isn't an option. So one of them, for example, is calling an emergency line — depending on where you are around the world, that might be 999 or 911 — and after calling that number pressing a set of numbers. For example, we found an initiative where if you pressed 55, for example, without saying anything, you just pressed those numbers, then that would signal to ... the operator receiving that call, that you were experiencing domestic violence and needed support. 

And did operators understand that?

It's really important with what we found that we clarify that these things aren't necessarily available in a specific local area. So we definitely want to share information about what we found so that these things can be implemented locally, so that people can really take these great ideas and, hopefully, make sure that they're available to women in their particular place.

We certainly don't want everyone starting to use the systems or do these things when there's not going to be help there available. We definitely want service providers, who are people who are in a position to implement these things, to see what we found and see what could be done and really adapt them to their local context and then share information about what's available so people know about that.

What were some of the other silent signals that women could use?

We found another example that was launched by The Canadian Women's Foundation. This was one where if someone was on some kind of a video chat or video call with a person, maybe just in a social setting or whatever, without actually saying that, you know, "I'm experiencing abuse," or, "My abuser's here and I need help," that could actually, you know, trigger a really difficult situation for the woman. So on the video call, I'm using a hand signal so without saying that you're being abused and you need help, if you point your arm towards the camera and then you tuck your thumb in and then fold your fingers down over your thumb, you're kind of like making a fist towards the camera. That's not something you would normally do in a video call. So that's an example of a signal that people can use to really indicate to whoever they're talking to that they need help. 

There was also something about buying certain things in a grocery store or a pharmacy that you could use as a signal?

Exactly. So another category of initiatives that we identified in our report were what we call partnerships with essential services. So even during lockdowns, during COVID, people still need to get access to things like food and medicine and supplies. There was really interesting things developed by grocery stores and pharmacies in particular, where people who were there buying things, they could use code words … so they would say words to a person working there that would signal that they need help or, I thought this was interesting, if they purchase really specific items that can signal that they need help.

We found examples of them putting information on receipts so that people would know what's available for the local supports in their particular area. Of course, these things require a couple of things to happen. It requires the staff who are working in these places to be able to respond appropriately and support people if they are saying that they need help, or indicating that they need help. And women then, of course, need to know that they can access services in those particular kinds of settings. So a few things need to happen for these things to be effective for sure.

How effective were these tactics in real life?

Because we did a search in June of what really have been developed since the beginning of COVID, what we were only really able to do in this particular report was to report what are the initiatives that have been developed.

It is a really important thing to determine how effective they actually are. Unfortunately, we don't have that evidence available yet. Our hope is that we can share information about these initiatives as broadly as possible ... so that there can really be uptake of these strategies.

With files from CBC's Information Morning