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Abused women, code words and emojis could save your lives


Abused women, code words and emojis could save your lives

Gender activists say ‘safe’ words and code should be used by women seeking protection from their abusers

Senior reporter
Women need to find creative ways to seek help to escape abuse during lockdown, say gender activists.
Speaking out Women need to find creative ways to seek help to escape abuse during lockdown, say gender activists.
Image: Sandile Ndlovu

When a woman in an abusive relationship posts “my Tupperware order” or my “cosmetic order” on her social media platforms, costly kitchenware and makeup are the furthest things from her mind.

They’re her pleas for help.

These are code phrases that could save her from injury, mental anguish and even death at the hands of her partner, especially during lockdown.

Gender activists are growing increasingly concerned about the plight of women and children who are locked up with their abusers, usually a husband, father or close relative, during the mandatory confinement period.

​With friends, neighbours and family homes being out of bounds, they are advising women with access to technology to use it as a tool to seek help if they are being closely monitored by their partners.

Last week, academics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal  (UKZN) gathered virtually to unpack the psychosocial impact of Covid-19 on the most vulnerable sectors of South African  society. Gender-based violence came under the spotlight.

Prof Relebohile Moletsane, a gender rights activist and academic, said the lockdown called for creative ways for women to seek help and remain safe.

“A number of local and international activists have come up with creative ways for victims to get help via social media platforms.

“For example, if you are being abused in your home, you can put on social media a code word that you have discussed with your contacts. That way they will know you need help.

“You could add ‘my Tupperware order’ and people will know you are in trouble.

The lockdown spells doom for victims of gender-based violence in homes across SA.
Prof Relebohile Moletsane

“If you add your address, it indicates you want your contacts to call the police.

“In other countries people have used ‘my cosmetic order’ to signal they want help.”

Moletsane believes the lockdown “spells doom for victims of gender-based violence in homes across SA”.

“We know a lot of them did not and could not report incidents in the first week of the lockdown.

“Even before of the lockdown we were doing a shoddy job of addressing gender-based violence in SA. A few strategies have been available and continue to be available.

“Before the lockdown you could run to your neighbour, friend or to family and escape and report. But in the context of the lockdown, this will not always be possible.

“Even for those with access to technology the abuser is usually sitting right there in the house and is likely watching who calls you and who you call.

Image: 123RF/Mario Ondris

“It calls for more creative strategies to ensure the victims remain safe.”

Gender activist Lisa Vetten said incidents of rape were not as high because of confinement, but family violence, including women and elderly abuse, was taking place.

“The potential for people to find scapegoats for their anger and frustration right now is quite good.

“There have been shelters in certain parts of the country, such as Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, that are pretty close to capacity.

“We are not going to understand exactly what has happened until after the lockdown when we can talk to people.”

Vetten believes women in abusive relationships should use “emojis or code words so the abuser does not realise you are asking for help”.

Adv Bernadine Bachar, director of The Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children and head of the Western Cape Women’s Shelter Movement, has seen “large numbers of women who have been physically abused seeking support” as the lockdown progresses.

“Unemployment, food insecurity, poverty, anxiety and frustration with confinement are all contributing to the rates of abuse.

“Victims are feeling helpless. They are feeling isolated from traditional support structures, whether in the way of family, friends or churches.

“Every day we assist women telephonically who are forced to surreptitiously message us for help.

“They are forced to wait for their abuser to leave their home so they can get crucial information to us.”

Bachar said many are concerned about the welfare of their children rather than themselves.

“There is still uncertainty as to how they go about getting assistance to leave an abuse situation during lockdown.

“One of the biggest challenges with assisting women is transporting them to the nearest police station so they can get help.

“Many are loath to have the police come to their homes while the abuser is present.”

She said the National Shelter Movement, with the Heinrich Boll Stiftung foundation, had devised a safety plan for those needing to leave an abuse situation.

“The safety plan aims to help women devise a safe means to leave an abuser and records all the important numbers needed to call for support.”