The viral TikTok hand gesture that saved a girl from kidnapping

Beyond the dances and cute cat videos, TikTok trends may have life-saving value. This was the case for a young girl in Kentucky in early November when she used a hand gesture popularised on the video-sharing app while she was in the car of a kidnapper. The gesture was created as a way for women in domestic violence situations to silently signal for help over video.

This hand signal used to alert others to violence at home has gone viral on TikTok.
This hand signal used to alert others to violence at home has gone viral on TikTok. © Observers/TikTok

On November 5, a driver spotted a teenager in a car driven by an older man on a highway in Kentucky. The young girl made a hand signal, tucking her thumb into her palm and closing her fingers into a fist. 

Recognizing the signal, the driver called the police, who arrested the older man and found that the young girl in the car had been reported missing in North Carolina two days prior. 

The "Signal for Help" campaign was created by the Canadian Women's Foundation.
The "Signal for Help" campaign was created by the Canadian Women's Foundation. © Canadian Women's Foundation

The hand gesture was created as part of the “Signal for Help” campaign of the Canadian Women’s Foundation at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, to give people stuck at home with abusive partners an avenue to ask for help “without being overheard and without leaving a digital trace”. The silent hand signal was a perfect solution during a time of increased home isolation – but also more video calls between friends, family and colleagues. 

Then, some TikTok creators got wind of the hand gesture and began sharing it widely. One video, published on October 30 by two feminist activists, showing people how to use the signal garnered over 600 thousand views. 

Others acted out the gesture being used in various scenarios. 

Other methods have been shared on social media to allow victims to reach out for help. A Polish teenager set up a fake cosmetics store, where people could send their address under the guise that they wanted to buy a product – but they were really asking for police to be sent to their home. 

In South Africa, people could send a WhatsApp message to an association against gender-based violence asking for “koesiesters”. But they didn’t really want to buy these traditional South African doughnuts – they were using the code word to report violence at home. 

An uptick in domestic violence during Covid-19

Studies have shown that domestic violence goes up whenever families are together for longer periods of time, like on summer vacations and holidays. Worldwide lockdowns coupled with tense situations – like job losses or sickness – made the Covid-19 a perfect storm for upticks in gender-based violence.

Domestic violence complaints increased more than 20% in countries such as Argentina, France and Singapore during each country’s respective lockdown periods starting from March 2020, according to the UN. Other countries saw spikes in rapes, missing women or femicides. 

Other measures like the Canadian Women’s Foundation’s campaign have been taken to give women safe ways to report violence at home. In Spain and France, victims could ask for help discreetly in pharmacies, by asking for “mask-19”. 

While publicising the ways victims of violence can ask for help is essential, some worry that making these methods go viral will only make it easier for abusers to recognise them. That’s why some advocates say that it’s important to have multiple ways for people experiencing domestic abuse or other forms of violence to ask for help – whether it’s flashing a hand signal during a video chat with a friend or reaching out to a trusted hotline using a codeword.