After being diagnosed with Human Papillomavirus (HPV), Hebe* felt scared, anxious, and lonely. At the age of 22, she had to endure what she describes as a very invasive procedure for which she wasn’t appropriately prepared, informed, or accompanied, while also coping with an abusive relationship. The gynecological violence, judgement, and shaming she claims to have experienced during medical treatment led Hebe to endure chronic stress and anxiety. A year later, she decided to try something new for her recovery—feminist psychotherapy.
Misogynistic comments and moral judgments about the patients’ sexual practices to coercive or non-consensual medical procedures are some forms of mistreatment and violence that women across Mexico may encounter in the country’s health system. This is part of a continuum of gender-based violence prevailing in the country, with disappearances and femicides—the killing of a woman because of her gender—being the ultimate (and extreme) manifestation. At least 11 women are killed every day in Mexico.
With this has come a growing awareness about the impact these violences, from income inequality to structural or institutional abuse, have on women’s mental health and bodies. Attention to mental health is still precarious and scarce in the country, and a gender perspective still needs to be included. Under the premise “the personal is political,” many Mexican women are finding a new healing pathway in psychotherapeutic accompaniments based on feminism and body work.
Feminist psychotherapy questions the theories, methods, and practice of traditional psychology, which is seen as androcentric, and considers the social and contextual issues—sheltered by a patriarchal system—that contribute to women’s discomfort. Psychologist Bianca Pérez explains that social class, race, gender identity, ethnicity, and age, determine the vulnerability of a person to certain violences. She adds that feminist therapy moves away from the pathology that invalidates the diverse emotional experiences of women; establishes an horizontal relationship between therapist and patient where power and privileges are constantly questioned; and guides women to reexamine their body, recover agency, and see themselves as political subjects.
In early 2018, Pérez and her colleagues created Sorece, an association of feminist psychologists based in Mexico City, in the context of the MeToo movement after noticing that women sharing their experiences of violence and sexual harassment didn’t know what to do afterwards. In Mexico, where the daily minimum wage is 123.22 pesos ($5.35), private therapy ranges from 350 pesos ($15.19) to 1,000 pesos ($43.39). Sorece performs a socioeconomic study to adjust its costs to any budget to make therapy accessible and sensitive from a gender perspective. Many women often complain about further victimization from psychotherapists after sharing accounts of sexual abuse and violence, a standard practice across the country reinforced from top government officials to authorities to private institutions and professionals.
“We focus on training from a feminist perspective so that therapists who deal with these cases are highly sensitized and understand these violences from a political perspective,” explains Pérez, Sorece’s general coordinator. “Understanding that it’s not by chance that there are so many cases of sexual violence in the country, but that it starts from a social and economic structure that reinforces the reproduction of these stereotypes that end in serious attacks on women, all the way up to femicide.”
A predominant cultural message is that men’s sexual desire, or rage, is uncontrollable, and these stereotypes allow certain permissions and reinforce the idea that it’s justifiable to attack, abuse, or rape a woman, explains Pérez. Women are blamed, held accountable for not fulfilling their social duty, and they’re the ones who deserve to be punished.
Only this year, according to official records, Mexico registered 724 femicides—the killing of women based on their gender—and 2,150 murders of women between January and September. Most of the cases Sorece attends involve sexual violence, survivors of attempted femicides, and even women who have been attacked with acid. Considering the gravity, and high number, of the cases, Pérez and her colleagues had to convene a wider network of therapists and reach out beyond Mexico City. To date, 54 feminist psychologists in four cities work with 600 to 700 women, mainly between the ages of 25 and 35.
The first time Hebe went to therapy was when she was 15 years old, but she encountered a process that further victimized her emotionally and made her feel abnormal. But this time, she found Sorece. “I felt very bad with the HPV diagnosis and felt that something was killing me inside… especially the moral burden that comes with having a virus of that type,” says 25-year-old Hebe.
Health-care professionals often relate the incidence of HPV to an irresponsible exercise of sexuality, or other harmful gender stereotypes that may result in psychological violence against female patients—even though HPV is incredibly, incredibly common and often goes away on its own. “The whole time they made me feel as if I were a source of virus,” says Hebe. After consulting other female gynecologists, she learned that she didn’t receive the appropriate information or treatment, which created a mental burden for her. Feminist psychotherapy allows women to deconstruct patriarchal practices, build healthier and fairer collective links, and ignite a process of agency, self-love, and healing. “I stopped fighting with being a woman. Definitely, feminist therapy and feminism saved my life.”
Feminist psychotherapy allows women to deconstruct patriarchal practices, build healthier and fairer collective links, and ignite a process of agency, self-love, and healing.
Línea Violeta, a Whats App emergency hotline that provides emotional support to women only through messages and audios, has been trying to respond to the high demand for psychological support for the past five years. Lilia Guzmán, a former general doctor who identifies as neurodivergent (people whose brain functioning diverges from dominant societal standards of “normal”), only attended crises of depression and anxiety during the first year. As the messages increased and cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse grew, Guzmán had to add four more women to the team and created a new hotline to attend cases of self-harm and suicide attempts. Rather than offering professional counseling, Línea Violeta specializes in Psychological First Aid (PFA), a supportive tool offered by community members to calm down and stabilize a person during crisis situations. They orient people, provide information about stress reactions, and connect them with help and resources.
“What PFA does is deactivate the crisis, provides emotional containment and brings the patient to a place of calm and stability. If we notice that there is a risk, we refer them to psychologists, such as those in Sorece, and monitor them until the situation de-escalates,” explains Guzmán. The team regularly works with women from across the country, around 250 cases per month, and shares manuals with self-care techniques that respond to the diverse experiences of women, including neurodivergent women. “There’s still a lot of taboo and I wanted the voices of neurodivergent women to be considered and offer support based on our experiences. ”
Body work and honoring women’s system of knowledge are key in feminist psychotherapy and support. According to Pérez, the great importance of what the body represents for women has been forgotten. “From the feminist perspective, we’re reclaiming our body, which has been a territory colonized, raped, and long attacked by men,” she says. Working with the body allows to find emotions and pains that connect women with their ancestors and to other women who are also experiencing similar situations, opening an opportunity for collective healing.
“This is collective, and realizing that you’re not the only woman living this, or that there are women who already overcame this, that’s when the panorama opened for me,” says Hebe. “That’s how I began to re-own my body, my ideas…and the moral burden decreased.”
*Full name changed or withheld for privacy reasons
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