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"We are not the women with black eyes."

Women who have survived abuse are changemakers. It’s time to involve companies in creating a paradigm shift in labour integration, to stop the double victimisation and social exclusion of survivors

"We are survivors not victims." Image: Fundacion Ana Bella.

More than a third of women worldwide have experienced abuse at some point in their lives. I am Ana Bella. I was one of the abused women until one night I used my strength, my fear and my will to escape with my four kids. I started a new life because I broke the silence. But the majority of abused women are invisible and do not receive support.

Only a small proportion of abused women in Europe report to the police.  Campaigns to encourage victims to report, to seek support, often use images of the physical consequences of abuse - black eyes, scars.  The media repeatedly broadcast interviews of crying and trembling women with disguised faces and distorted voices.  Newspapers report on the murders of women in Spain every week.

When I was a victim of abuse I could not recognise myself as one of those women, I would never ask for support if it meant to be like them: dead or scared to death. Thinking about the huge number of invisible abused Spanish women, in 2002 I made a change: I appeared on television with no disguise, a positive message, a big smile telling other women that there is an alternative, if they speak out they can have the opportunity to make a new life, to be happy.

I received more than 1000 phone calls from women wanting support after that first TV appearance. In 2006 I founded Ana Bella Foundation, a peer to peer survivor network. We use our empathy, love, sisterhood and positive testimonies to enable 1,400 abused women a year to break free from violence.

But despite our strength as survivor women, we face social exclusion because society only sees our damage, and the kinds of employment that we are considered for carry low salaries and low status. 

This is also the case with formal programmes for labour integration. When I was in a shelter I was offered training to become a cleaner. I told them I could speak English and use a computer and that I would like training to be a bilingual executive secretary.  The response was that the only option for abused women was to work in cleaning services.  I know it is a decent job, but why can’t we have bigger dreams?  

We had already involved media and survivors to encourage others to come forward. It was time to involve companies to create a paradigm shift in labour integration, to stop the double victimisation and social exclusion of survivors. To say no to invisible jobs, to create visible positions as Brand Ambassadors, where women were recruited based on personal values as survivors, rather than positive discrimination for being victims.

We believe that abused women are not victims any more, we are survivors. We are strong women, we overcome frustration, we persevere, we never give up, we are used to dealing with pressure and times of crisis.  Our idea was that if we focussed all those skills within employment we could make a contribution to the social and economic growth of companies.

Large companies have the capacity to influence policies that pioneer social change. We decided to use a co-creation model and find a multinational company with a dual social and business approach to partner with.

I was an Ashoka Fellow when we contacted Danone (A French multi-national food company) to ask if they would work with the Ana Bella Foundation to co create a social solution to a business need, without any cost to the company. Companies need high‑performance motivated sales promoters and abused women need socially valued job opportunities to empower themselves. This was a potential win-win transformative partnership that could create social and economic value for companies, for women and for social welfare.

Our Social School for Women Empowerment offers personal and professional training to women survivors to enable them to release their full potential. We can offer a trampoline job (one where they can jump to the next possibility) as a Brand Ambassador through which women can access the wider employment market and became changemakers in their communities.

In collaboration with MTF and Danone, Campofrio, Bonduelle, Benefit, Bakery Solutions and other clients, 948 women in Spain have changed their lives through this programme.  The companies have also increased sales, reduced absenteeism from 40% to 2% and reduced staff turnover from 63% to 2%.  We received the best worldwide award Project for Women’s Empowerment by Ecosystem Fund, and our methodology has been designated a best practice in the European Guide of Companies for Social Change.  Danone awarded us the Best Supplier award, and Ashoka awarded us the best Co-Creation Project (of 338 projects from 37 countries).

For the first time in Spain we appeared in the news not because we had been killed but because we are changemakers.

We are not the women with black eyes but assets for companies: we are not a problem to be solved, we are part of the solution.

Gloria was 62 years old when she broke free from violence, on public assistance she would receive 400 euros a month. We didn’t see her black eye, we saw her potential as a human being and woman survivor. She was trained at the foundation and started to work as a Danone Brand Ambassador, her first job in her entire life. She did not know how to use a computer, but in one week she learnt how to do an Excel report. We trusted in her, Danone trusted in her, the clients trusted in her - saying thanks, thanks, thanks - so she started to believe in herself. Gloria is now an active social agent, paying taxes and acting as a changemaker into her community. She leads a Volunteers in Action Association, which organises visits to elderly people in her neighbourhood. She has recently retired and has enrolled at the university.

Elisa touched me deeply. I met her in the shelter. She couldn’t talk without crying. She felt so small, so nothing, it affected her so much. She was an independent woman before she was abused. She was trained in our foundation, started working in our trampoline job as Brand Ambassador, jumped to a longterm job in Santillana, and last year she was elected as the Director of the Women Institute in Extremadura, Spain, influencing 500,000 women through her position. From victim to changemaker.

In Ana Bella Foundation we believe we can redirect ‘energy’ away from violence towards productivity and empathy. We have proved that as women who can overcome years of violence we have the stamina needed to change the world. Survivor women took action in Spain, we invite you to take action with us to accelerate social change to eliminate domestic violence, to build a society free of violence.

Read more articles on openDemocracy in this year's 16 Days: Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. Commissioning Editor: Liz Kelly


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