Emergency Message Protocols protect the vulnerable
[First published in Women’s Web]
A lot has been reported and debated on the gruesome murder of Shraddha Walker, but one small detail of the case is not receiving as much attention as it should. The investigation has revealed that the accused Aftab Ameen Poonawalla used her Instagram account for almost a month after her murder to give the impression of her still being alive.
Why an emergency message protocol is critical
Presumably he did that to avoid the possibility of a search being launched before he was able to dispose off all the body parts. It now turns out that he need not have worried- Shraddha’s isolation was so complete that it was not till many months after the crime that someone cared enough to go to the authorities. But assuming her friends, knowing about the abusive situation she was in, were keeping an active watch on her, by continuing to communicate with them, he may have succeeded in deluding them.
Given how a large chunk of our communication is through WhatsApp, Messenger or Direct Messages, where we neither see the person nor hear their voice, it is important for all of us to have emergency protocols in place especially if we feel we are in a vulnerable situation.
My scientist friend and I have an ongoing joke between us- “If you ever receive a message from me saying ‘vaccines don’t work’, you should realise that it is my way of telling you that I have been kidnapped.” The joke started because both of us were equally frustrated by anti-vaxxers, but it doesn’t hurt to have similar code messages with friends who you trust.
Shraddha’s friends were aware of the fact that she was in an abusive relationship. If they had set up a code like the one my friend and I joke about, the friends would have been alerted to something fishy long before they actually were.
How secret safety codes work and are widely used
Many bars and restaurants have a variation of the secret code pasted in the ladies washrooms. If a woman feels unsafe, all she has to do is to order a specific drink, and the staff will ensure her is extricated from an unpleasant position with minimal fuss. In an ideal world, there should be no need to put such elaborate systems in place, but given the perils of dating, particularly online dating, it is a level of protection that is much needed.
Secret codes are particularly useful as a way to protect children and adolescents. A mother of a teenager once shared how before dropping her daughter off at sleepovers, they finalised a secret code which the daughter would use if she felt uncomfortable and wanted to return home. It was always an innocent phrase, and on seeing it, the mother would hop into the car and drive straight to the place where her child was, with no questions asked. The obvious benefit of the secret code was that both the mother and daughter knew that if things were starting to get out of hand, the mother could swiftly and neatly extricate her daughter. The additional benefit was that there would be no proof of an SOS being sent on the daughter’s phone, so she wouldn’t have to lose face in front of her friends.
Younger children, especially those that lead semi-independent lives, are vulnerable to being tricked by strangers. It is not hard for strangers to approach a child who is waiting to be picked them up from school and trick them into accompanying them by saying that the parent got delayed and deputed them to pick the child up. Since there is a finite probability that there may be a genuine emergency where the child may have to be picked up by someone else, it is good to have a secret code. The child can be taught to go with a stranger only if they knew the code. My children and I had a code word, which we would repeat often so we did not forget. We never needed to use it, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.
In State of Terror, the geo-political thriller jointly written by Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny, the protagonists use a linguistic play on words (An oxymoron walked into a bar… and the silence was deafening) to identify themselves to each other. It may appear childish, but it never hurts to have back-up systems in place.
Though Shraddha Walker had been systematically isolated by her partner, some of her friends knew she was in an abusive relationship. If she had a fool proof way of communicating to her friends that she was in danger, things might have been different. “Hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst”, they say. Setting up secret codes with people you trust is a simple way of protecting ourselves.