Let’s consider WhatsApp to end VAW

Posted November 25, 2015 from United Kingdom

Violence Against Women (VAW) is a global problem. as you know, an estimated 35% of women globally have experienced violence or abuse. How do we reach out to these women? How do we prevent others from becoming victims? how do we protect victims that are unreachable? Different strategies have been used in the past and as much as there have been progress, the reality is a lot still needs to be done to end widespread VAW, especially so in remote areas of the globe. As I write this piece, a woman is enduring abuse; violence is being committed against another, while one will die as a result of a violence committed against her. It is because of these reasons that I am suggesting that organizations working to end VAW consider using WhatsApp.

According to internet world statistics, as of June 2014, there is an estimated 3 billion internet users in the world with a 70% usage in Europe, 87.7% in North America and 26.5 % in Africa. As of December 2014, WhatsApp was the most popular mobile messenger apps in the world with an average monthly usage of 600 million.

In Qatar, a 2014 study by the country’s ministry of information and communications technology shows that WhatsApp is the leading social media network used by people with a usage of 87% of Qatar’s total internet population. Out of eight services studied, WhatsApp emerged as the leading with a total of 97% usage by all Qataris online. In the same vein, a 2014 global Webindex study shows that WhatsApp was the most popular mobile application in India with a market share of 52%. Sexual violence is considered to be the most common form of VAW in India. Isn’t it time to use this application to protect another woman from violence?

As we already know, one in three women still experience physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner. Because this violence is perpetrated by the persons they love, it makes it difficult for women to come forward to report. Moreover, the fear of repercussions from perpetrators and stigma from families and communities also pressure victims to keep quiet. Yet, women and children suffer abuse especially in rural communities. And it is because of this that I believe copying and bettering the case of the BBC WhatsApp information service for Ebola by organizations will be a very useful tool to ending VAW.

The BBC setup this service in September 2014. As the vastest chat application in Africa, the BBC thought it could provide adequate public health information. I think organizations working to end VAW could do the same to halt this inhuman act against women.

Local people were key to understanding the nature of the epidemic and the interactive nature of WhatsApp enhances this possibility. According to the BBC apps editor Trushar Barot, “We quickly realised that a lot of the questions users were sending in were practical concerns that we hadn’t really understood in our broader coverage of the story”. Organizations can collect valuable information including questions from women who experience or have experienced VAW and this can help in planning programmes for victims of VAW, prepare campaign tips on signs of abuse. These information can also help in advocacy with governments and international agencies to ensure policy changes, since victims will be feeding in firsthand information on how, when, where and why it happens.

The BBC service provided a bilingual service; in English and French to cover its coverage area. This is important in allowing people to freely communicate in ‘vernacular’ languages unlike in other social media forum where they could feel intimidated by fluent English or French speakers. This is a strategy organizations can tap on to provide the right message for indigenous people. Many rural women in developing countries are uneducated; therefore audio and or video messaging in the language they understand best will be most appropriate. They can also send audio messages once they witness violence or realise someone is being abused.

WhatsApp is a good platform for crowd-sourcing. For instance the BBC used personal, real life and witnesses stories that enhanced their coverage on TV, radio and online. Barot states that they“.... received many messages that gave us real insights into what it was like living in the region and the difficulties and challenges people faced.” Campaigns and advocacy against VAW could be expanded to reach the wider public and yet keeping it private and anonymous. This service could include, getting alerts when abuse occur, teach women what to do when it happens and how they can teach other women.

However, the BBC service could not upload video clip on the consideration that the files may be too big for subscribers’ data limits. This is a very good consideration organizations should take on board. Hence if any organization decides to use WhatsApp for their daily updates to subscribers, they should be aware that unlike other social media forums, providing too many updates in a day could put subscribers off. Information and campaign tips and advice should be short, succinct and to the point thereby keeping subscribers interests. For example the BBC Ebola service focuses on three types of contents: text messages, pictures/visuals and short audio clips. In the case for VAW, it can be broaden to include video.

A Reuters Institute digital news report stated that a good number of young people in the America and Europe relied on their smart phones for daily news updates. Organizations working against VAW should collaborate with media institutions to involve campaign tips to their daily news updates on WhatsApp.

WhatsApp processes about 50 billion messages from its 450 million users daily. This shows that the application is a real contender in the information dissemination business and thus should be embraced to enhance currency, efficiency and effectiveness of campaigns against VAW.

This service can be used by the Police and all organizations and institutions working to end VAW. Organizations could fashion it to meet with their functions towards ending VAW. For instance a campaigning organization can collect reports through their WhatsApp service which they could share with the police. I believe this will go a long to help prevent more women suffering violence.

Voices Against Gender-Based Violence

Comments 9

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Nov 27, 2015
Nov 27, 2015
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Fonda Sanchez
Nov 27, 2015
Nov 27, 2015

Hello there! 

As someone who currently works with victims of domestic violence and sexual assualt I completely support and agree with your idea to use messaging apps to report abuse. Often victims have no access to internet and can't find local resources or hotlines that can support them. It is also common for an abuser to isolate thier victim from their friends and family members leaving the victim unable to reach out for help. If a victim has access to a phone and is able to use social media or a messaging app this may be a way for someone to make contact with crisis centers, friends/family, or local enforcement. However there is the potential risk that the abuser would be able to track the messages that the victim sent and to whom they were trying to contact for help. 

Have you heard of Wickr? This is a messaging app that features end-to-end encryption and removes all records and identifying information. You can even set messages to destruct within minutes of sending it, leaving no trace. A user can send pictures, documents, video, and audio files as well. This could mean that if an abuser were to search for outgoing or incoming messages they wouldn't find them, and the victim may be able to report abuse safely or plan an escape. The organization where I am currently employed has also thought of using Wickr as a way of communicating with victims of abuse.  I've read that WhatsApp made the decision to move to end-to-end encryption, but recently I've also learned that this new venture has not yet been successful. 

Again, I totally support this idea and think it could be a completley new strategy of how to help victims of violence and abuse, especially hard to reach victims as you mentioned. Would love to further discuss this topic with you! 

Dec 01, 2015
Dec 01, 2015

Hi Fonda,

Many thanks for your insightful comments. You are so very right about the risk of using such a messaging app. 

Whatsapp indeed started end to end encription which they are still working on for improvement. I believe they will one day get it done as technology improves daily.  Until then, I will suggest organizations focus on using the app for sensitisation and awareness raising and if victims or witnesses find it secure to use for reporting abuse, I think they should with deep safety considerations. 

Yes, I have heard of Wikr and how secure it is. I haven't used it  though.

I believe WhatsApp will contribute immensely to help end VAW, particularly because of its popularity.

Thanks again for adding your voice to better the strategy I highlighted.

Kind regards

Bernadette Muyomi
Nov 30, 2015
Nov 30, 2015


Recently in my country Kenya, one of the powerful female cabinet secretaries resigned because of alleged massive corruption in the ministry she is heading. It elicited a lot of public reaction and online discussions. I felt that the attacks on her were too much and too personal. My recent reading of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead opened my eyes to understand why this was happening. ‘When a woman excels in her job, both male and female coworkers will remark that she may be accomplishing a lot but is “not as well liked by her peers”. She is probably also “too aggressive,” “not a team player”, “a bit political”, “can’t be trusted ”or“ difficult”.’ Today I read a post on World Pulse and remembered something.

On 14/11/2015, In one of the leadership Whatsapp groups, someone posted a photo shopped picture of the cabinet secretary in a bra and pant captioned “Ninakula pesa yenu mtafanya?” (I will eat your money, what will you do? )

It disturbed me that the person who posted is a national youth leader of one of the political parties in Kenya. I decided to reach him via his private whatsapp: Here is my conversation Tom (Not real name).  

Me: I posted the photo he had posted on the group of a hundred or so members

Tom: Haha

Me: What value does an individual gain from derogatively sexualizing a woman online?

Tom: wawah …madam pls…eat slowly, we wont do anything (At this juncture I think he was imagining that I am excited by the photo he shared)

Me: ????

Tom: It is all over imagine

Me: My understanding of respect for women is that when an individual shares such it speaks a lot about their personal character and attitude towards women. Being all over is no excuse for an individual to further such unless the mind is being remote controlled by crowds.

Tom: I’m sorry dear

Me: To avoid your mother, wife, sister, daughter to face vulnerability to sexualization, you have to practice the same towards other women. Change begins with individuals and men more so a leader like you needs to set the example. That’s where social change is anchored. We seem to have a long way as Kenyan youth but it’s never too late to set a new trend

Tom: Sent me the famous photo with an elephant, horse and other animals: The one where you are asked “How many animals can you see?’

Tom: Chemsha bongo (Tease your brain)

Me: I am not going to Chemsha bongo(Tease my brain) when you and I are supposed to be having a serious dialogue as leaders who respect women on digital platforms and our collective role as young leaders

Tom: The picture was posted by **** and the youngest member of the county executive committee in **** County on **** forum

Me:  I am referring to you reposting. Not the other person. We as leaders cannot just do queer things because other people are doing them. I have seen the post that you, Tom has posted. Is this a copy paste story of monkey see, monkey do? Then what are you spreading as a youth leader?

Me: We as leaders must respect ourselves and stand up for our actions. On matters of respect for women, we can’t say that we didn’t do it coz others didn’t. Otherwise we will rape, maim, etc coz others are doing it.

The conversation ended on 22:35 hours. I have never had from him again, nor have I seen him post anything derogative on a woman. I hope that my message to him got home and he will be able to serve with a different perspective towards women. Tom is in his thirties probably 33 or 34 and is in various Whatsapp groups where he can influence directly or indirectly.

Every leadership opportunity gives everyone a chance to promote and protect the rights and dignity of women.

Dec 01, 2015
Dec 01, 2015

Hi Bernadett,

Thanks for sharing your story on this thread and many thanks for adding your voice to the debate.

Your piece clearly explains the risks and benefits of using messaging app. While the youth leader used it to molest the former Minister, you challenge this rhetoric and used this same space to educate and challenge his behaviour. This explains how we can use this space to raise our voice and change attitudes as you have rightly done. I salute you for your bravery my sister. You action also justifies the need for organizations to use such an app to reach out to other women and men speaking with women.

Thanks again for inspiring me with your action.


Tamarack Verrall
Dec 03, 2015
Dec 03, 2015

Dear MS Kandeh,

Your idea has certainly grabbed my attention. It is beautifully written, laying out at least a dozen or more reasons why considering WhatsApp could be very important in enhancing this movement to end violence against women. I am inspired to look closely at WhatsApp, not having explored it yet, but determined to know more about the ways online access can help. Accessible, bilingual, educational, private, links to media coverage and between helping organisations including police, education, and especially roads to freedom...all such important and encouraging possibilities. I have been intending to study computer possibilities more deeply for how to strengthen sharing information about and safety for women facing violence locally and globally, inspired by WorldPulse. Your ideas here have pushed me to learn more. I am also inspired to look into Wickr as well. I look forward to any further discussion and information from both you and Fonda. And Bernadette, what a great action. I'm sure it rippled back through the same media as a beautiful tidal wave!

With love in Sisterhood,


Dec 08, 2015
Dec 08, 2015

Hi Tam, Thanks for reading. I am happy to know this piece has pushed you to learn more. I appreciate. M

Dec 07, 2015
Dec 07, 2015

Dear MS Kandeh,

Thank you so much for sharing this valuable information! I hadn't heard about the BBC's project previously, so the background information was really helpful. 

I think that Whatsapp would be a great platform for public education and outreach. I wonder about it's efficacy as a crisis intervention, though. In some areas, there might not be a large or effective enough police presence to respond to any reports of violence or abuse, so it might seem as through calls for help are going unanswered. I'm interested to hear your thoughts on how to address that issue. 

Best wishes, Casey

Dec 08, 2015
Dec 08, 2015

Hi Casey, Thanks for adding your voice to this very important topic. To the concern you raised, I believe in the absence of police in some remote villages, there's always local/traditional authorities and leadership through which organisations against VAW can channel the matter. These traditional authorities usually have the same power like the police including the power to arrest and also to sit on matters in a local court. As long as the laws protect women, the issue can be taken forward, all thanks will go to WhatsApp, if it was the channel of reporting. Thanks again as I look forward to further discussion. M

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