Coronavirus codewords: help or hindrance in domestic abuse?

LONDON/BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Victims of domestic abuse can use codewords at the pharmacy to summon police help in the global lockdown but support groups are divided as to whether the new schemes are a help or hindrance.

As violence at home surges under COVID-19 lockdowns, codeword projects are operating from Argentina to Italy, with the aim of encouraging victims to raise an alarm without tipping off their abuser.

Official schemes in countries such as Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Argentina and Norway are also inspiring ad-hoc projects online, with well-wishers offering support.

Worldwide, almost a third of women face physical or sexual violence at the hands of a partner at some point in their life, according to the World Health Organization.

Advocates of the support schemes say the codewords - ranging from ‘mask’ to ‘eyeliner’ - offer a vital lifeline to isolated victims while critics worry that drafting in help from people who lack expertise can heighten the danger.

“We are extremely critical about this,” said Marcella Pirrone, president of Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE), representing more than 150 members across 46 countries.

“If women have managed to go to the pharmacy and say this, then they could manage to have a phone call to the proper (helpline) number where they find professionals answering.”

Calls to abuse helplines have doubled in some countries amid the strain of lockdown, which has left many people trapped indoors with an abuser and little hope of rescue.

In Spain’s Canary Islands, an archipelago of about 2 million residents, the governmental body the Institute of Equality told women they could get help by walking into a pharmacy and simply asking for a ‘Mask 19’.

Staff were told to call emergency services once they hear the codeword and summon help on the women’s behalf.

Thirteen women have used the scheme since its launch in early March, the institute said, and it was quickly copied by other countries.

“These days, when one must remain confined during the state of alarm, the pharmacy ... is the nearest place a victim can go to request help,” said Pedro Claver, a spokesman for Spain’s General Council of Pharmaceutical Colleges.


Women’s groups say the codeword projects offered a ready-made support network by using local shops.

“It’s good if (a woman) knows she can go to any pharmacy,” said Ana Bella Estevez, who runs a domestic abuse support organisation in Seville, southern Spain.

She said pharmacies were more accessible than police stations and let victims use the cover of a shopping trip.

British support organisation Women’s Aid said pharmacists needed training - unlikely given the initiatives have sprung up with speed in a bid to counter the surge in attacks.

WAVE’s Pirrone also said alerting police might put a victim in greater danger as forces often have little power to act and the call could tip off an abuser and result in retribution.

Resources would be better spent on boosting existing abuse schemes that offer expert help, she said.

Codeword schemes launched by officials have inspired a rush of copycats on social media, with users pledging to call authorities or check in on users who indicate they are suffering abuse by mentioning a specific beauty product, such as eyeliner.

These projects in particular are fraught with risks and may leave victims in the lurch, said Lisa Johnson at Women’s Aid.

“Community codewords can work well with people who already know each other, for instance in the workplace or with family,” she said.

“However, using a made-up impromptu codeword, although well-intentioned, risks causing confusion. It may not help survivors get the support they need.”

Kika Fumero, the director of the Canary Islands Institute of Equality who devised the original ‘Mask 19’ campaign, said the codewords could live on long after the pandemic.

“We devised the scheme at this time of confinement but it’s working well enough to be extended ... and it could become a helpful resource in co-called ‘normal’ times,” she said.

Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit