Learn the International Sign for ‘Help’ and You Could Save Someone’s Life


A women’s empowerment charity in Canada has developed an innovative new way for people in distress to signal for help without alerting the person who might be a threat to them.

An open hand with the thumb across the palm is then closed over by the upright fingers to symbolise that the person is trapped. Seeing or giving this sign is an immediate indication that the person needs help and that the witness should do something to intervene.

The simple hand gesture has been making the rounds on social media as people want to increase awareness of this international signal that something is wrong. Learning the sign and what to do about it could be a huge help to someone in trouble.

How to Make the Sign

The hand gesture is a two-step movement as demonstrated below.

International sign for help

Here’s a video of what that looks like in practice.

The sign was created by the charity The Canadian Women’s Foundation in response to a shocking rise in domestic violence over the course of the pandemic. Due to being trapped at home with a potential abuser, people suffering domestic violence have had fewer ways to indicate that they need assistance or to escape without alerting their attacker.

This signal was designed to be given over video calls without leaving a digital trace such as a text message or chat log.

Historically, there have been several attempts to create awareness of code words that people can use while in dangerous situations, the most famous being the “angel shot”. The strategy here is that if someone orders an “angel shot” at a bar, it’s a sign to the bartender that the person needs help.

In the digital age, and with less social interaction happening in bars, the new symbol could become a vital tool to help people escape dangerous situations.

What to Do If You See the Sign

Intervening in a domestic violence, abuse, or human trafficking situation can be dangerous so it’s important to practice caution and operate calmly if this happens. The Canadian Women’s Foundation says that if you see the signal being given, the first thing to do is check in with the person and ask what they need, and what they want you to do.

If you see something happening in public, a good tactic is to try and diffuse the situation by making noise nearby or trying to speak with the people involved in a calm way by pretending you know them. Questions like “I haven’t seen you in ages, how have you been?” might be able to calm things down to the point where help can be sought.

If the person can’t respond or is in immediate danger, call 000 to contact the police. When speaking with police, it’s important to let them know the situation might be tense and to approach without sirens and lights so as not to aggravate the situation.

You can also contact crisis centres and support networks like 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732, Relationships Australia on 1300 364 277, and Mensline Australia on 1300 789 978. If the situation is urgent, however, the police are your best point of call.

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