Ana Bella Estévez is shifting the focus of support programs that address gender-related violence. She works to empower abused women by leveraging their strengths and capabilities in order to regain self-confidence to begin the separation process from their abuser. Ana Bella creates peer-to-peer support networks of surviving women, who by example of their own experience of recovery convey a positive message. Ana Bella’s model is changing the current approach of available programs and resources to be better adapted to address women’s specific needs, thereby lowering the barriers to recovery.
The New Idea
Ana Bella is challenging the traditional victim mindset and approach of resources intended for battered women. She has created a holistic approach that leverages their strengths and competencies over their victimization, and includes key stakeholders from multiple sectors.
Ana Bella is creating peer-to-peer networks that bring together women who have successfully overcome abuse with those who are undergoing abuse and want to break free. Through these networks, she has proven that close references and support from real women who have reconstructed their lives are more efficient in helping women to start their own process of separation and eventually legally report their abuser. To reach those 80 percent of battered women who do not legally report their abuser, Ana Bella focuses on the benefits of “breaking away” instead of the dangers of remaining in an abusive relationship. By building on the strengths of survivors (rather than only focus on treating the negative consequences of domestic violence), she is reducing the time it takes for women to begin the process of moving away from their abuse. Additionally, due to the simplicity of joining an informal peer-to-peer network, Ana Bella is creating shorter bridges for battered women to reach the point of reporting, which is generally the major access point to official resources and financial support. This network is also filling the gaps in existing resources, as volunteer networks provide key support more efficiently and are better adapted to women’s real needs.
Ana Bella also works with the government to change the prevalent current approach of battered women as victims which is at the core of many of inefficiencies in the system. By focusing on the positive abilities women have developed through their tragic experience—strength, determination, and ability to work under extreme pressure—she is improving public resources for abused women. From how staff interacts with women when they first approach social services, to the type of financial support offered, including housing and work placement, Ana Bella is assisting these entities to become more efficient by learning from women survivors.
In order to transform the way society views women who have suffered abusive violence, Ana Bella also works with the media to change how domestic violence is portrayed. Instead of showcasing negative images of desperate, weak, violated and marginalized women, she provides positive examples of women living new lives. Ana Bella is proving that messages conveying hope and a plausible way out are more effective in encouraging women to initiate a separation process and report their abuser. This approach is also helping to change how corporations perceive and support abused women employees. By eliminating stigmatization at work and contributing to their speedier reintegration into the job market, women are able to achieve the necessary financial autonomy to safely rebuild their own lives.
United Nations directed studies have found that one in three women around the world suffer gender-related violence at least once in their lifetime. These figures do not vary by age or social or economic status. According to the Spanish Institute for Women, 2 million women (about 10 percent of the female Spanish population) suffer gender-based violence and only 20 percent among them will report their perpetrator to the authorities. From 2001 to 2009, 554 women died in Spain as a result of gender-based violence.
Discourse condemning violence against women is a very much accepted and widespread in Spain. From the legislative point of view, regulations for the protection of victims and laws to promote equality between men and women have been well developed over the recent years. However, these legislative measures are insufficient to change negative attitudes and discriminatory behavior. Adding to this difficulty, the public system for abused women fails to provide support to women prior to reporting a perpetrator.
A root cause of the difficulty of coming out of an abusive situation is the psychological effects of abuse. Often, before actual physical violence, women suffer isolation from their support networks through psychological abuse that undermines their self-esteem; feeding a dangerous cycle of increasing isolation. This process worsens when the perpetrator also controls a woman’s mobility and social contacts. This isolation combined with the stigmatizations from the media and other mainstream taboos toward abused women, make women hide their status and cloister themselves; complicating their ability to reach out for help. If they do so, in the end, they often feel rejection from society, which magnifies their fears, as well as their feeling of loneliness and sense of helplessness. Finally, if women do not feel empowered when they are breaking away from violent relationships, they may move from one abuser to another.
Solutions and concrete actions on behalf of the public administration focus on immediate help for a woman in danger or a woman who has criminally reported her abuser. This support takes the form of shelters, restraining orders, and official protection but overlooks the majority of women who have not yet taken this step, or have already used up their share of official aid programs. On the other hand, due to a lack of representation of this group in decision-making forums, abused women are not incorporated in the design of support measures. Therefore, these solutions are based mainly on a theoretical framework, designed by experts, but often lacking the pragmatism that would make them truly effective. Solutions emerging from civil society (including women’s associations) in order to fill the gaps left by the public administration do not always deliver the necessary attention tailored to women’s personal needs.
Additionally, media messages on the issue to often tend to focus on the immediate negative consequences of abuse, by showing images of defeated women. On the one hand, these messages discourage women from reporting their abuser, as they do not want to be identified with the negative pattern portrayed. On the other hand, society-at-large forms a negative image of women in these circumstances (instead of the abuse itself), perceiving them as marginalized, isolated, and weak. This makes their integration into the labor market more difficult and discourages other support from close networks and family contexts.
Based upon the principle of portraying positive testimonies of survivors, Ana Bella is working at three different but complementary levels: Creating peer support networks, partnering with the public administration and other social agents to help them reach more women more efficiently, and influencing mass media.
Peer networks enabled by Ana Bella form around women volunteers who have successfully left abusive violence. Women suffering abuse have a difficult time admitting it to a stranger, but will often find it easier to talk to a volunteer from Ana Bella’s foundation that has been through a similar experience. These relationships begin either through an e-mail or telephone call asking for information, or a casual meeting at one of the events hosted by the Ana Bella Foundation (workshops, stands at fairs, and fundraising occasions). The foundation connects the interested woman with the nearest volunteer or group, and step-by-step a peer relationship develops based on trust and empathy concerning a common traumatic experience. The volunteer not only shows her own example of breaking free from violence and reaching a successful current situation, she also guides and supports troubled women during their process. The support and professional network meets regularly to discuss each individual case and establish the most appropriate route to follow with each participant. This way Ana Bella provides a gradual trust building process that enables women who are not yet ready to report their partner (an estimated 80 percent of women suffering domestic violence) to gain confidence and support from the network to take the first steps in breaking away and access key support resources for gaining independence and protection.
Besides the peer-to-peer networks, Ana Bella uses other resources to help women build their self-esteem and start a new life based on their positive abilities. These resources include shelters, where women can live temporarily until they find a more stable situation or flexible work at a small business. Ana Bella created, Comprehensive Support Services, to provide part-time jobs for women not yet fully available for the job market. These resources are not meant to duplicate existing official resources, but instead act as mediation points for women who for one reason or another cannot fully access what is available.
To expand this peer-to-peer network, Ana Bella is engaging many other women-related organizations that serve as geographical nodes to implement her approach and develop local networks. Through community-based support networks, Ana Bella empowers formally abused women to become true changemakers with leadership roles and autonomy to organize activities and events locally, with a decentralized model of resource mobilization. In the past year, Ana Bella’s foundation has helped over 1,200 women. On average, 1 percent become actively involved in the support network and have directly helped about 300 other women. The impact over these 300 women is then indirectly multiplied as they serve of positive references reaching to a further 900 women. Starting in Seville, Ana Bella has expanded her network to five different regions and is also serving women in Latin America.
In order to consolidate this work with other citizen organizations, Ana Bella is coordinating the creation of a federation that includes all women’s associations that adopt the principle of portraying and tapping into the positive testimonies of survivors. Federated, these organizations will be better positioned to further influence the approach toward domestic violence at a national level, beginning by changing the current approach of campaigns to increase rates of reporting.
In regard to the public administration, Ana Bella works at different levels. Through an experience-based training methodology, she is helping social workers change the way they approach battered women, from a perspective of victimization to an empowerment approach that will help women start building a new life from day one, based on their needs and leveraging their capacities. This also avoids the possibility that a bad first experience with the public administration—often due to lack of empathy or excessive patronizing on behalf of the support service workers—may deter a woman from following through with the formal reporting process. To influence future generations of social workers and psychologists, Ana Bella is developing partnerships with universities to implement internship programs for social work students to learn through practice.
From the preventative side, Ana Bella works with students at schools and families to help prevent the development of aggressive behavior patterns and unhealthy relationships that may lead to domestic violence in the future. She works with both women and schools, where her volunteers teach workshops based on positive testimonies and strengthening women’s capabilities. With the media, Ana Bella works intensively to move the perspective away from victimization, and instead, to present women as empowered survivors. As Ana Bella herself has been portrayed positively in different documentaries, she has been sought by different media to find other ways to address this topic. Now she is also able to send volunteers who have successfully left their partners and rebuilt their lives, to represent survivors for media opportunities. Additionally, the foundation is producing radio programs and articles with its own positive content.
After 11 years of being abused by her husband, Ana Bella managed to escape and raise a family of four children. In the process of separation and through interaction with other women in similar situations, she realized the potential within women who had overcome similar dreadful life situations. Ana Bella also saw how their inherent capacities as a result of their abusive relationships had not been recognized, even by themselves, and therefore, had not been leveraged by the existing support system.
During her breaking away process, Ana Bella also experienced the deficiencies of the public support system and began thinking of ways to help not dependent on the official support service’s office hours, or the empathy of the civil servant in charge. She found that the empathy of people directly involved in the problem of gender violence (victims themselves, family, and friends) was key to help women who needed support. She began to meet informally with women to support each other and find ways to offer help to others. In particular, Ana Bella remembers the first woman she worked with: Leticia, from Cuba. Together with Leticia she consolidated the idea that women leaving abuse can become excellent multipliers of support. In Ana Bella’s words, "I just helped Leticia, but Leticia then helped 30 other women on her own!"
To bring her work into a more systematized structure, Ana Bella launched a foundation with her limited funds in 2006. Since then, she has spent every hour possible providing resources and support to women on the path to breaking free from their abuser. Although she had opportunities to move away from this professional field and build another life—including a tempting offer to create a new life in the U.S. with her sister—she decided to continue working with battered women. Ana Bella is determined to transform how women leaving their abusers are supported by focusing on their abilities rather than only seeing the ailments that have produced the situation.