The Free Hotline That’s Saving Women’s Lives by Disarming Dangerous Men
Photo: Siavash Ghanbari on Unsplash

The Free Hotline That’s Saving Women’s Lives by Disarming Dangerous Men

The new public resource seeks to save women’s lives in Bogotá by eradicating machismo and providing a safe space for callers

In Bogotá, Colombia, a phone operator listens intently to the man on the other end of the phone. The caller, 23, is reeling from his girlfriend’s decision to leave him. It’s a development that’s devastating, but not completely unexpected; after all, he regularly accused his partner of infidelity without justification, often questioning the nature of her male friendships. Despite knowing he was in the wrong, he also felt he had nowhere to turn to deal with the insecurities that had a toxic — and ultimately terminal — effect on his relationship.

Luz Fedra Rua, the psychologist facilitating the conversation, is all ears and enlightenment. It’s not the first time she’s received a call of this nature. On an average day, the Calm Hotline, the men’s listening line where she works, fields up to 25 calls from men in the Colombian capital. Since the free service’s December 2020 launch, around 700 men have called to seek help for an emotional crisis.

The hotline, which focuses on men’s mental health, is expected to help reduce rates of violence against women. It functions on the belief that machismo, an exaggerated pride in masculinity, lies at the root of male emotional crises and gender-based violence — but also on the hope that sexist attitudes and behaviors can be transformed for the better.

On the first day of operation, an operator saved a male caller on the verge of jumping into a 400-foot waterfall; another day, a caller cried for 45 minutes without saying a word.

During their call, Rua asks questions intended to provoke reflection. She points out that the heartbroken man’s suspicions and mistrust are a symptom of deep-seated insecurity. By the end of the call, he decides to move forward with a program that will help him deconstruct jealousy and machismo in his life.

As of last year, Bogotá boasted an alarming domestic violence statistic: On average, three women were abused every hour, according to government figures from January to October. During this same period, 77 women were murdered. The city received 35,917 calls from women experiencing violence, of which 1,482 were assessed to be at risk of being killed. Statistics like these have remained constant for the last decade.

In the past, Bogotá, like many other cities, has worked exclusively with women on measures meant to prevent such violence. It has reinforced women’s hotlines, widened access to psychological and judicial support, and expanded women’s empowerment programs. But some advocates believe that this approach has not produced the intended results. “All of this is important, but if we don’t also create public policy that centers transformation and intervention of the abusers, which are men, then we won’t see a better dynamic,” says Henry Murraín, head of the Calm Hotline and director of Citizen Culture at the Mayor’s Office.

The Calm Hotline instead aims to tackle the violence at its root. In the lead-up to the hotline launch, researchers examined the thoughts or behaviors that set off violence against women. They discovered that 76.8% of domestic violence cases were associated with feelings of jealousy, distrust, and machista attitudes.

Machismo reinforces the idea that a “real man” controls and treats a woman like property, dismissing their independence, thoughts, desires, and autonomy. Machismo teaches men that “losing a romantic partner is akin to losing a part of your manhood,” says Murraín. This belief is often dangerous for women.

The Calm Hotline addresses these issues with a two-pronged program. On the front line, four psychologists respond to emergency calls and provide men with immediate support. Another four psychologists lead a weekly eight-session gender transformation program that callers are encouraged to attend, with each one tailored to an individual’s needs.

“If someone comes in for problems with jealousy, we ask him why and when he feels jealousy, and then we start deconstructing those variables and unlearning,” says José Manuel Hernández, the hotline’s team coordinator, adding that the one-to-two-hour online classes are teeming with students. The model is similar to the one used by Alcoholics Anonymous, known as the Minnesota Model, which offers personalized services and educational lectures in a group setting.

Here, men learn about new masculinities, alternatives to dominant and violent frameworks like machismo: understanding it’s okay to cry and to express emotions, but also to advocate for equality and defy gendered division of work. It also teaches men to take responsibility for harm they may have caused.

Some of the public messaging raising awareness for the Calm Hotline (Courtesy of Calm)

Research points to the idea that male engagement programs produce positive results, but the question remains how well a hotline can ensure long-lasting changes or transform social norms around masculinity. The Calm Hotline is still in the pilot stage, and only a handful of nonprofits have so far adopted the concept in countries like Costa Rica, Mexico, and Argentina.

However, Murraín points to a precedent that bodes well for the hotline’s prospects. In 2010, he developed the Jealous Peoples Anonymous Hotline in Barrancabermeja, an oil town in northwestern Colombia where the intimate partner violence rate was double the national average. After 18 months, that rate fell by 43% — a feat that Murraín calls a “luxury” for this line of work.

It’s difficult to say whether the hotline was directly responsible for the decline in violence without a study to verify the results. (A tight budget made this impossible.) However, according to Alejandra Ariza, a psychologist and the project coordinator of the line, violence shot up again after the line was discontinued, offering evidence of the hotline’s impact.

That first hotline, Ariza says, offered an accessible and completely private outlet to discuss issues that are, sadly, as taboo as they are common — especially important for men who feared being seen as unmanly if they openly sought psychological services, let alone opened up to friends or family.

The hotline’s team learned early on that to treat the issue of jealousy, men needed a safe space for expression. In one case they examined while planning the hotline, a lawyer imprisoned for his wife’s murder said that he had repressed his rage and pain for more than 20 years, opting not to speak with anyone about his growing resentment because he feared appearing weak. One day, he reached his tipping point and burst.

“He told us, ‘If I could have received some kind of support when we first started living together, when the situation was a lot more manageable, maybe I would have had a greater capacity to change. Maybe this wouldn’t have led to where it did,’” says Ariza.

But beyond design, it was crucial that the line was complemented by efforts directed at the general public. Through open forums set up across the city, citizens signed up to help end domestic violence. Meanwhile, a media campaign challenged popular myths about love on television channels, radio stations, and in street theatre.

“Gender-based violence and notions of masculinity are not individual constructions,” says Juliana Carlson, an expert on male engagement strategies and an associate professor at the University of Kansas. “They don’t sit in my head and in my heart. They sit in our social norms about masculinity and that can’t change at the individual level.”

For a model to truly create change, Carlson adds, it must address multiple factors, or else someone might revert to previous toxic behavior. For example, if a man begins to express vulnerable emotion and take care of his children after an intervention, a male best friend may reject him. “The messaging back to the person is that this isn’t accepted,” says Carlson. “Male peers, which are a very powerful influence, tell [him] this is not okay and that [he’s] going outside of the norm. It will make that individual intervention less effective.”

Ariza says a media campaign like the one used with Jealous Peoples Anonymous will likely be introduced in Bogotá. Yet, the size of Bogotá — a city of nearly 10 million people — will likely present new challenges that didn’t factor in Barrancabermeja, a city of 200,000.

Still, in the meantime, Hernández, the Calm coordinator, says that the new hotline is making an impact. Every day, the phones ring with new callers — and not always for anticipated reasons. About 40% of callers are men suffering from suicidal thoughts. On the first day of operation, an operator saved a male caller on the verge of jumping into a 400-foot waterfall; another day, a caller cried for 45 minutes without saying a word.

“How much do men suffer because of these patriarchal burdens, because of the machista system?” says Hernández. “We were taught that men don’t cry, they don’t hug, and they don’t express emotions. Well, here is an opportunity for men to be heard.”