Mariana Baños is democratizing access to psychological services for women of all socioeconomic backgrounds throughout Mexico. Mariana’s work addresses the violence and underlying sense of disempowerment that many experience by providing sustained and consistent professional support free of cost to any woman in Mexico who has access to a telephone.
The New Idea
By providing free, comprehensive care over the phone to women suffering from any degree of physical, sexual, economic, or psychological violence, Mariana’s organization, Origen Foundation, is reducing the barriers to psychological services throughout Mexico. The core of the model is the toll-free phone line, Pro Ayuda a la Mujer (Help for Women), the first call center in Mexico that offers routine therapy at absolutely no cost to the callers. Unlike other phone-based services in Mexico that only provide one-off support to callers facing a specific domestic violence crisis or incident, Pro Ayuda a la Mujer connects women with psychologists, lawyers, and other specialists who provide professional follow-up to their callers long after the initial contact. Many of the women who call are not in emergency situations but are in need of psychological support nonetheless. In this way, Pro Ayuda a la Mujer is not a hotline; rather, it is a full-service psychological and legal support network provided through a call center. Origen employs a detailed and comprehensive database to register every call and the counselor’s notes on each session, which are made available to other potential service providers. For callers requiring more specialized assistance, Mariana has built alliances with some 5,000 public and private healthcare and legal institutions to accommodate specific cases. No other phone service in Mexico offers such sustained follow-up or detailed record-keeping.
In providing this telephone-based service, Mariana seeks to empower Mexican women to conquer the fear and hopelessness that many feel in a misogynistic machista culture, where men can mistreat women with significant impunity. At all levels of Mexican society, women are barred from the resources they need to develop their self-esteem, due to economic constraints or cultural mores that have long dictated female roles. Backed by financial support from the public sector and private philanthropy, Origen is providing free psychological and legal services to socioeconomic classes that normally could not afford them. This routine professional therapy provides Mexican women with the emotional and psychological tools to deal with their household situations and instills a sense of independence and control over their lives.
Due to entrenched cultural attitudes, Mexico has very high rates of violence against women compared to the rest of the world; according to the World Bank, seven out of ten Mexican women are victims of abuse. The violence that Mexican women face does not only consist of isolated incidents of physical abuse but also derives from an embedded culture that devalues the person, giving rise to brutality in many forms, including physical, sexual, economic, and psychological violence. Emotional or psychological violence in particular causes lasting damage to social integration, as it strains family dynamics and thus creates a permanent, harmful effect on society.
The violent culture in Mexico begins above all in the home. In the Mexican tradition, the mother is the rock upon which the family is constructed; at the same time, she takes care of cooking, cleaning, caring for the children, and other household chores while her husband works outside the home as the main breadwinner. Traditional gender roles are therefore fairly codified in Mexico, and while increasing numbers of women have entered the workforce, stereotypes about their roles persist. Meanwhile, women are subjected to pervasive misogynistic attitudes that uphold men as socially superior. In the family setting, these attitudes can manifest themselves in a wife’s subordinate relationship to her husband. Consequently, children grow up in an environment where conflict and gender inequality are the norm as they observe daily violence between their parents, ranging from family disputes to demeaning name-calling and even physical blows. This violence, which is usually directed toward women, repeats itself in generational cycles with grave detrimental effects for society at-large.
Mexican women who are victims of various forms and levels of violence often lack the sense of agency and empowerment to stand up for themselves, which only aggravates the impunity their aggressors enjoy. The problem is particularly acute in poorer and rural regions of Mexico, where women lack access to any services at all, let alone affordable ones. Even women from higher-income backgrounds face social and cultural taboos if they seek professional support, particularly if their husbands are wealthy or powerful. As a result, most services that empower women with the tools they need to take control of their relationships and create a healthier environment for their children are out of reach for the majority of the population.
Origen Foundation provides a comprehensive set of resources to empower women who experience various forms of violence, principally through its free telephone-based therapy. At the heart of Origen is Pro Ayuda a la Mujer, a phone-based program with fourteen years of operational experience and national coverage for any woman with access to a phone line. Mariana has a team of twenty-five highly trained psychologists, all of whom are female to ensure callers’ comfort and safety, who work six-hour shifts answering calls. In addition to their rigorous initial training when joining Origen, counselors receive frequent additional professional development sessions in pairs. Counselors transfer callers to specialized resources as needed. After the first call, users—the vast majority being are women, although Origen serves men as well—can schedule weekly 45-minute follow-up calls with the same psychologist, free of charge. If a woman needs specialized help, Origen connects her with its network of over 5,000 partner institutions and law firms. This database is updated every month, with an Origen team solely dedicated to checking the current status of all partners on the list and adding new partners as appropriate. Origen maintains a variety of both in-house and allied external services for women, ranging from legal aid to healthcare and even a network of shelters for women who need to leave their homes for their safety. Approximately 97 percent of first-time calls become sustained long-term cases.
Mariana’s staff manages a sophisticated online platform to register each case with recordings of calls and notes from the attending counselor. This system allows Origen to use data-driven measures to evaluate the program’s impact in resolving callers’ issues over time. The psychologists’ intervention methods are highly systematized and documented in operational manuals to ensure consistency and to provide input for ongoing counselor training. Prospective Origen psychologists must undergo a rigorous selection process and specialized training before being permitted to join the team, and they are routinely evaluated thereafter. Mariana has also made her training sessions available to therapists in other parts of Mexico who do not work directly with the phone line but focus on domestic violence issues in their private practice.
As Origen Foundation has grown, Mariana has begun to experiment with complementary programs that contribute to her overarching goal of empowering Mexican women. These adjunct projects have the potential to become the basis for new components in her overall strategy. For instance, the foundation operates four Origen Houses, physical centers in the states of Mexico, Guerrero, Puebla, and Mexico City, where women can go to receive assistance in-person and participate in workshops. Furthermore, the foundation has created a package of treatment services for corporate employees consisting of a membership guaranteeing health insurance, free legal advice, and therapy; these packages are sold to corporations to provide Origen with an earned-income stream. Finally, Origen has also adopted a leadership role in partnerships with government institutions that offer services to women; for instance, it has consulted for the government-run counseling hotline SAPTEL to increase its accessibility and improve its work. Mariana laid the groundwork for these peripheral programs as a direct response to needs that she observed in the community, to foster deeper systemic change. All these options have been designed to support women’s sense of agency and control over their own lives.
Although Pro Ayuda a la Mujer is now considered the most comprehensive call center providing professional psychological and legal support to women in Mexico, Mariana has ambitious plans for continued growth. She hopes to deepen Origen’s coverage in more regions of the country, using mass media campaigns to spread the word about Origen’s services and benefit up to 60,000 women a year in five years. Through new partnerships with both citizen organizations (COs) and government agencies, Mariana also wants to launch new projects to further empower women. One such example is her plan to open a new research center to make information publicly available about violence against women in Mexico. The center’s staff will include anthropologists and sociologists to develop campaigns and other prevention strategies to complement the foundation’s current activities. Mariana hopes that this center will become a national reference point for COs, government agencies, and reporters on topics related to women’s rights, thus helping to promote the attitudinal and cultural change that Mariana ultimately seeks.
Mariana’s objective now is the expansion of the call center’s coverage to the U.S., specifically to Mexican immigrant women. Mexican immigrants in the U.S. who suffer from violence and emotional abuse in addition to the pain of leaving their country and culture are often afraid to seek help in the U.S. because of their immigration status or their lack of English skills. As a call center based in Mexico with Mexican counselors, Origen can offer a safe and more comfortable support system for these women that is tailored to their cultural context. While the foundation has already piloted some programs to provide its free phone-based psychological services to women in Central America through a partnership with the Gigante supermarket chain, the U.S. cultural and political context is very different and constitutes a major challenge for Origen. Mariana has recently begun to collaborate with the Galveston Institute in Houston to support the program’s nascent expansion into the U.S. and hopes to spread Origen’s coverage there in the next few years.
Mariana is the founder and director of Origen Foundation, which is funded mainly through government grants and philanthropic donations from foundations and individuals. A small part of Origen’s funding comes from the sales of a package of therapeutic services that companies can supply to their employees and also from some contract work for public institutions. After founding Origen with a meager US$2,000 budget, Mariana has built up her organization to a current staff of fifty-five people, a ten-member board of directors, and an annual budget of US$1M.
Founded in 2000, Pro Ayuda a la Mujer has already achieved national coverage. To date, it has received over 150,000 calls, and its therapists and lawyers have closed more than 71,500 cases. It currently handles an average of about 2,500 calls a month, and Mariana hopes to double that figure in five years by expanding its presence around the country. Mariana plans to create more partnerships with state governments and other institutions to increase access to services and to strengthen the follow-up strategy for the most difficult cases. She has also integrated other additional services offered by the Origen Foundation that contribute to the empowering core of her program, including training in income-generating projects for women and programs for their children. Above all, Mariana is entering a new stage of international growth as she begins to pilot call center coverage to Mexican immigrant populations living in the U.S., a particularly relevant and isolated group with enduring ties to Mexico.
Raised to value gender and social equality from an early age, Mariana developed a strong sense of social justice at home that she has carried with her ever since. She considers the female figures in her family, particularly her mother and grandmother, as major role models in instilling in her a social conscience. In high school, Mariana participated in Catholic mission trips to poor communities in remote mountain regions of Mexico, where she had her eyes opened to the plight of women in particular. Other personal experiences, such as a difficult bout of post-partum depression and the realities of raising three children, have contributed to her empathy with women at all levels of Mexican society.
Mariana’s first professional experience in the social sector came while she spent a year living in Madrid in 1994. There she volunteered at a small foundation serving orphans and the terminally ill—an experience that marked her deeply. In particular, she became aware of the painful consequences of prejudice while interacting with people from the marginalized Roma community. Mariana observed firsthand the strong prejudices against the Roma in many parts of Europe that made it impossible for them to improve their quality of life. Working with the Roma fueled Mariana’s long-term commitment to changing discriminatory social attitudes in general.
After returning to Mexico, Mariana collaborated with a friend to build a nursery for scavengers living in garbage dumps in the community of Chilmahuacán. In opening centers to educate the children in this community, she soon realized that it was actually their mothers who most needed support. As the leaders of the household, the mothers were responsible for constructing family life; without a supportive home environment, the children could not fully integrate attitudinal changes learned at school into their lives. To address this need, Mariana and her colleagues offered special classes at their schools for mothers. However, they soon discovered that many of the women required more professional support, especially psychological therapy. In researching other foundations dedicated to women, Mariana found that none had an integrated strategy to work with women; instead, each focused on specific issues. Therefore, in 1999 she formed the Origen Foundation as a CO to empower women and catalyze a major change among their families.
Mariana has been honored with several awards and recognitions for her work. She was awarded first place for Social Responsibility from the National Institute of Telemarketing, and in 2006 she received the Social Development prize from the Universidad del Valle de Mexico. However, her most prominent distinction to date has been winning second place out of 47,049 participants in Iniciativa Mexico (2010), a national competition for social projects. With the money she won in this competition, Mariana has been able to expand Origen’s geographic coverage and develop new strategies to achieve a national transformation empowering women and promoting gender equality.