Global health initiatives tend to target physical health — through programs like vaccination campaigns or providing communities access to clinical care. While such health interventions are imperative, mental health often gets left out of the picture.
Yet the pandemic exacerbated issues of mental health, especially for women, who were more likely to experience gender violence as they were confined to their homes with potentially abusive partners and family members. UN Women called this the “shadow pandemic,” and the WHO reports that worldwide, nearly 30 percent of women have experienced physical or sexual violence — a rate that only increased in 2020.
The Ashoka and Boehringer Ingelheim partnership “Making More Health” is working to change this by creating new frameworks for building robust health systems around the world. And as part of this initiative, Ashoka Chile has launched a learning community focused on the intersection of women and mental health.
Its goal is to raise awareness about the unique mental health issues that affect women in Spanish-speaking countries, framing this crisis as a systemic issue instead of an individual problem.
Building a new consciousness
“There is little research at the Latin American level that shows, on the one hand, how women’s mental health issues are the result of multiple factors such as sex, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, and gender identity among other things, and on the other hand, how these factors are experienced in a patriarchal and unequal culture,” explains Ashoka Fellow Nerea de Ugarte, founder of “La rebelión del cuerpo” and co-leader of the community of practice. “They are the result of structures within a violent and patriarchal society, and the consequences generate mental health problems.”
The community has assembled Ashoka Fellows and innovators working at the intersection of gender and mental health in the Spanish-speaking world to participate, and they have held three sessions so far. They have created the “Mujeres En Voz Alta” initiative to raise awareness about the lived experiences of women and the consequences on their mental health.
As part of this project, they recently shared a campaign within their networks asking women about their mental health to better understand the social factors that impact women’s mental wellbeing in the Spanish-speaking world. The results will be displayed on a public mural so others can see the answers.
After they receive the results, they will create a manifesto highlighting their findings with a call to action. They hope that the mural and this manifesto will raise awareness around how these issues are not personal, but political and structural, and use that as leverage to make change on the policy level. They are also hoping to educate psychologists and doctors working in mental health spaces on approaching mental health from a gendered perspective.
“We must learn how women can become conscious about the fact that their mental health issues are not caused by them and aren’t their responsibility. It is because of a culture and a society with many different causes that are social,” Nerea states.
Getting women involved in the solution
Beyond raising awareness about these issues, the community is also working to change mindsets about these issues in collaboration with the women they seek to benefit.
“We want to work with women in communities and get people to participate in the diagnosis of social problems. In co-collaborating, you build the interventions together, so everyone becomes an expert in this kind of change,” Nerea says.
By allowing women to better understand the mental health crisis affecting them and to express themselves and connect with others experiencing the same issues, the community aims to take away the shame and stigma that often accompanies mental health difficulties.
And by allowing women to realize that their issues are not isolated but shared, Nerea and the other innovators involved in this project hope to generate a new political consciousness among women and create new mechanisms for collective problem-solving.
From mindset shift to policy change
Nerea is currently on a sub-committee of the Health Ministry in Chile and is in charge of proposing new public policies around mental health for women. Ultimately, the community of practice would love to see the mural and manifesto drive more of this tangible policy change and co-create government interventions.
“I think that the most important outcome of this is to share [our findings] with the authorities and say look — these are the reasons women think, feel, believe, and experience mental health issues,” Nerea says. “It’s a system that is not working for girls and women, and we want to show that policy changes can help prevent it.”
By elevating the concrete experiences of women and the power of their stories, “Mujeres En Voz Alta” aims to make these issues more visible and create a collective demand about this urgent topic. While this project is currently limited to the Spanish-speaking world, there is the potential for it to be replicated in other regions, catalyzing a global reframing around how we approach women’s mental health.
This community of practice is being co-led by Ashoka Fellows Nerea de Ugarte (Chile), founder of “La rebelión del cuerpo,” Mauro Vargas (Mexico), founder of “GENDES A.C.” and Laura Baena (Spain), founder of “El club de las malas madres” and “Yo no renuncio.”[CD1] [RC2]
“Making More Health” is a 12-year partnership between Ashoka and Boehringer Ingelheim with the goal of increasing access to healthcare for all people, animals, and communities. To date, the partnership has supported over 120 social innovators from 42 countries with an impact on over 12 million people worldwide. Learn more about Making More Health here.