5 Women On How They're Using WhatsApp To Change The World

photographed by lauren maccabee.
You won't have missed the upsurge of political organisation among women in the UK in the last few years, on issues ranging from housing and the environment to abortion and period poverty. But you may not have considered how these campaigns managed to gain momentum and what goes on behind the scenes, away from the media spotlight.
Well, according to Labour MP Jess Phillips, WhatsApp is owed much of the credit. Speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, Phillips said that unlike Twitter, the free encrypted messaging app had played a pivotal role in bringing female activists together by giving them a safe space to discuss ideas and experiences, and coordinate future action.
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"There is a shift in the way women organise themselves across all ages in the last few years," she said. "Women need spaces to feel they can speak and they can organise together and WhatsApp has created that in a virtual world." Case in point: the June parliamentary debate to change abortion laws in Northern Ireland, which Phillips said had been "almost exclusively" arranged by MPs, including herself and Labour's Stella Creasy, via WhatsApp. She also cited two groups of women in her Birmingham Yardley constituency of which she is part: one with 180 Muslim women and another with 56 Somali women. "I can get a message out to the community through these WhatsApp groups in seconds."
Ahead, five women tell Refinery29 how they're using the messaging platform to push for change.
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WhatsApp can be encrypted so we use it to talk about abortion pills

Emma Campbell, 39, is the co-chair of Alliance for Choice, which campaigns for abortion rights in Northern Ireland. The campaign uses numerous WhatsApp groups with vastly different purposes.

The way social movements work, you need loads of different WhatsApp groups. Some with three people, some with 20 and some with 50 or more. Some will last for a couple of days out of necessity then die, while others will last for ages.

For us, it's one tool in a big box, but it’s best for confidentiality and for sending images. WhatsApp can be encrypted so we use it to talk about abortion pills. Our 'Together for Yes' group had nearly 100 members at one point and I had to turn auto download off for images. One group is called 'Repeal the Sequel', for talking about abortion rights in Northern Ireland, one is called 'Fem Dinner' for our social get-togethers. One is called 'Zagreb Group', because sometimes a few of us are in a different country at the same time, so we plan meet-ups, and another is called 'Emergency Chats', for obvious reasons.

Organisation for our rally at the rugby rape trial happened on WhatsApp, and once plans were agreed and processed we created a bigger public group on Facebook involving hundreds of people. Sometimes WhatsApp is used to plan extra-legal work. This has happened on a number of occasions but largely super sensitive things will be transferred to even more secure messaging apps like Signal or Telegram. Facebook doesn’t feel safe. WhatsApp feels safer – it’s simple and straightforward. Most organising is a mixture of WhatsApp, Facebook (for events), Twitter, Slack, Telegram, Mailchimp and email.

We also use it with a group of activists across Great Britain and Northern Ireland as we can’t easily all be in the same room at the same time. It's also useful for organising postering, conferences and I often do media interviews with international outlets on the WhatsApp video phone. I usually also tell journalists to WhatsApp me as I get them easier than emails when I’m travelling around the place – we’re rarely in an office unless it’s someone else’s!
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It's more lighthearted and fun than email

Julia, 33, is the co-director of the Women's Environmental Network, which campaigns for environmental justice through feminist principles.

There are 20 people in our WhatsApp group, 'Women of WEN', which we created in February this year. It's a combination of the WEN team, volunteers and ex-team members. Despite the name, we wouldn't exclude men, trans, or non-binary people that want to join. It's for anyone in the team who wants to stay in touch about WEN's work and related activities via WhatsApp.

We use it almost every day to:

- Share photos and feedback from our activities, such as workshops, talks, campaigns, and projects delivered.
- Let each other know about interesting upcoming events and find out who else is going.
- Organise ourselves around events, such as project gatherings and protests.
- Share timely news articles about, for example, women, feminism, the environment and plastics.
- Float new ideas and get feedback.
- Share updates from campaigns and projects, and encourage people to share them among their wider networks.
- Share key facts and figures from reports that might inform our work.
- Ask general questions or make calls for help, like looking for volunteering help at events or looking for a particular item.
- Resolve emergencies, such as lost office keys.
- Encourage and support each other in our projects.

Someone recently shared details of a feminist protest planning meeting which she couldn't go to via the platform, so another person in the WhatsApp group went along instead and posted an update/feedback from the event. We also used it to plan and organise around the anti-Trump protest in July, and after a recent group cooking project. Someone said the food looked so good [based on the photos] that we should create a recipe booklet. This is now in production!

We like WhatsApp because it's more lighthearted and fun than email, and everyone has an equal voice. It's also a very easy way to stay up to date with what everyone is doing. It's a good way to share and celebrate the work we're doing in a friendly safe space.
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We have a group admin who keeps us on message

Richael Carroll, 31, is the national media rep and convenor for County Mayo, Ireland, for the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC), a leading Irish pro-choice group.

We have one main WhatsApp group with around 50 people in it, which we use almost daily, called 'ARC Social Media Pics'. Members range from spokespeople and those in positions within the working structure of ARC, to ordinary volunteers. Many of them would be part of their local ARC regional group, and they may also have their own WhatsApp group to communicate with each other. We also set up a separate group in the lead-up to the March for Choice, included members and non-members, to share photos taken on the day and media coverage post-march.

The main group has been going since last October. It's mainly for sharing regional media coverage and photos for social media. Photo quality is better than on Facebook. The pictures would easily get lost if we also used it for general chit-chat, so we have a group admin who keeps us on message. But everyone who joins knows it has one purpose.
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It's the fastest way to share information and make quick decisions

Saskia is from the social housing campaign group Focus E15, which began as a group of mums from the hostel Focus E15 who faced eviction, triggering a campaign against social cleansing.

We've been using WhatsApp for about four years and use it to plan our weekly public street stalls and activities. We meet face-to-face every Saturday, so it's not our only way of communicating, but we use it to organise during the week. It's a quick and easy method for sharing images and news links. It's the fastest way to share information and make quick decisions if a situation requires it. However we're aware it's owned by Facebook, which makes us uneasy.
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We get more done on WhatsApp than email

Isis O'Regan, 26, is an activist with the London-based Room For Rebellion, which campaigns for abortion rights through partying.

There are four of us in our WhatsApp group, 'R4R' – myself and fellow organisers Anna Cafolla, Jess Brien and Hollie Boston. We use it to organise our parties and update each other on news, politics and music.

In the lead-up to Ireland's abortion referendum, Jess would send cuttings from newspapers every day on the Yes and No movements and we'd discuss the campaign daily. It was really interesting watching the roll-out of biased media but we felt fully engaged at all times. We use it pretty intensely around the time of one of our events, too, as we'll have a lot to organise. However, I'm pretty bad at pestering everyone so have learned to limit the number of messages and try and do quick weekly bursts of updates. We get more done on WhatsApp than email. There's a lot of diary aligning and we're currently sorting a new logo. It's in real time, and great for sharing images and accessing PDFs. It's accessible and also feels safe and easier to keep track of.

Our discussion is focussed on politics and how we can engage others in three different cities because, as you can imagine, it differs from Dublin to London to Belfast. We also share a lot of mixes from incredible womxn and non-binary folks, and hype up different fitness classes and gyms. Fitness keeps us all sane. Organising on WhatsApp makes sense as activism overlaps with our personal and creative lives so much.
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