Mexican men confront machismo culture in therapy to combat violence against women

Natalia CANO
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Participants of the support group meet to reflect on how machismo is deeply entrenched in Mexican society

In an improvised therapy room in a large house in the center of Mexico City, a group of men aged between 20 and 70 close their eyes, inhale and exhale.

Each places his hand on his heart and -- in a moment of honest reflection -- takes time to think about the violence he inflicted on women and the consequences of those actions.

"I'm Jaime. This week I committed verbal and emotional violence against my partner. I'm here to help and be helped," said a 63-year-old before a dozen other men replied in unison: "I will help you."

Mexico is suffering from a femicide crisis, with 10 women murdered every day, and increasingly men are questioning the prevalent male chauvinism -- or machismo -- deeply entrenched in society.

"I've never been physically violent with a woman, but yes I've done it in other forms: emotionally, verbally and sexually because several times I was unfaithful," said Jaime, who withheld his surname to protect his family.

"I recognize that and I want to change."

Jaime approached Gendes, a gender and development center, a couple of years ago on his partner's advice as they struggled with relationship problems.

Founded in 2009, Gendes conducts studies about social inequality and supports activism in a bid to rehabilitate male chauvinists.

- 'Violence, domination and force' -

"Masculinity has always been associated with violence, domination and force, but now that's changing. New (perceptions of) masculinity propose the idea of promoting equal treatment of men and women," said psychotherapist and Gendes director Mauro Vargas.

He aims to teach the 1,200 men per year who attend his meetings to understand and confront the different types of violence against women: sexual, physical, economic, verbal and cyber.

Mexico has long faced governmental indifference and ineffective policies when it comes to tackling violence against women.

Women have begun to take to the streets to demand immediate action to reduce the number of femicides, which grew by 136 percent between 2015 and 2019.

Two brutal murders last month, including that of a seven-year-old girl, highlighted the issue ahead of International Women's Day March 8 and ignited protests.

Vargas says daily occurrences such as wolf whistling, sharing photos of naked women or sexist comments about female colleagues perpetuate an inequality that results in violence against women.

The therapy at Gendes helps men "unlearn what society has taught them within a macho and misogynistic environment," said Vargas.

- 'A man in deconstruction' -

Although there is no official data on their numbers, groups exploring a non-traditional type of masculinity to break from a patriarchal culture are multiplying in Mexico.

Using mostly social medial, men organize meetings in spots such as urban art galleries or book shops to debate their role in a growing feminism movement.

But Arturo Reyes, a 29-year-old psychologist and an instructor at Gendes, says he believes men cannot themselves be feminists.

"There are allies to feminism, but there are no men feminists. The fight is for women only," said Reyes.

He says machismo is "a cultural decision" rather than an individual affliction.

"A macho in rehabilitation is a man in deconstruction," he added.

In the house in the central Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, those in therapy fix their eyes on the floor.

When they're ready, they raise their faces, take a deep breath and drum up the courage to relate their own personal experiences.

One visibly stressed man confesses to having assaulted his son.

For Reyes, the most satisfying element of the therapy is when one of the men approaches him afterwards with a hug and says: "Thanks to these sessions, my wife and children can now approach me without fear."