Ana Bella Estévez Jiménez de los Galanes is the founder of the Ana Bella Foundation in Spain, which helps women who are victims of violence and prepares them to re-enter the workforce. She has become a renowned social entrepreneur and won many distinctions, including a fellowship from Ashoka*. The story of her fight begins with her own story.
The courage to escape
Ana Bella experienced domestic violence for 11 years. Then she found the courage to escape her husband’s control and decided to bring a message of hope to other women. As she explains, “I got married at 18 and gave up my college plans for love. Then I experienced abuse ‒ both physical and mental ‒ for years. However, at the time I did not realize that I was being abused. It may seem unbelievable now, but I did not know!” One day in 2002, Ana Bella’s husband asked her to sign an agreement that required her to give him the receipts for everything she bought and that prevented her from reading a book or even going to church, along with all kinds of other “rules” that he wanted to impose on her. She refused and said she wanted a divorce. For the first time, she did not bend to his will. “He almost killed me that night. I was on my knees, barely conscious and about to give up. Then I heard my youngest son crying and it woke up my maternal instinct ‒ the only instinct that my husband wasn’t able to take away from me. So I signed the paper, but then I used my determination, my fear and my strength to take my four kids and go to the police.” Although, she found the courage to escape, she also found herself with no resources: no money, nowhere to live, no education, no résumé… She didn’t even have legal custody of her four children, who were between 1 to 10 years old at the time.
“All I had was a piece of paper that proved I was a victim of domestic violence and a monthly stipend of €300 per month that wasn’t even enough for a place to live. But I remembered everything that I had been through, all the sleepless nights… And I told myself that if I was still standing, still alive with my four kids, then I was no longer a victim. I was a survivor: a strong woman who had managed to resist. I decided to harness all my perseverance and skills to succeed in my new life. To get a home and a job and custody of my children.”
She also decided to speak out publicly. It began with an observation: “The majority of abused women do not get help because they don’t ask for it ‒ because they don’t dare to speak up. In Europe, only 14% of women press charges”, explains Ana Bella. In 2002, the media and awareness campaigns only addressed domestic violence by reporting on the victims’ injuries and deaths. The handful of women who shared their stories were masked and invisible. This prompted Ana Bella to reflect, “When I was that woman, I saw those first-hand accounts and I never thought to myself, ‘That’s me’. I could not identify with that much unhappiness. I thought to myself that if it did not work for me, it would not work for other women.”
The strength to get involved
Ana Bella chose to speak out on television, with her face visible and with a smile, to deliver a positive message ‒ a survivor’s message. She told her story to create hope. Her way of tackling the problem from a new point of view resonated with others. She received over 1,000 phone calls from women from all levels of society. In 2006, she decided to create the Ana Bella Foundation and build a network of women ‒ a network of survivors, as she decided to call them ‒ to support victims and to become spokespersons for the movement to end violence against women. In 2011, she realized that she also needed to involve companies to fight job discrimination. She herself had experienced the same discrimination: “When I lived in a shelter, they offered me training to become a housekeeper. I explained that I spoke English, that I knew how to use a computer and that I wanted to learn how to be a bilingual assistant. I was told that the only option for abused women was to work for a cleaning company. Of course, that’s honest work, but why shouldn’t we have bigger dreams?”
For 12 years, because Ana Bella had big dreams, she and her Foundation have helped more than 20,000 women and the network of survivors grows each day.
*Ashoka is an international network of social innovators in all fields.
reporter for Fondation CHANEL