Abuse Survivor Defines Her Own Destiny

Ashoka Fellow Is a Changemaker in the Home

One of my favorite leadership axioms from the campaign trail is this: define thyself lest you be defined. It is a key principle that drives the success of advocates and entrepreneurs alike. Last week, I met someone who is, in fact, both an advocate and an entrepreneur. Put more elegantly, she is a social entrepreneur.

Her name is Ana Bella Estevez and she is helping women keep from being defined into a life of despair. Ana Bella has a fascinating story about how she is working in her home country of Spain, to lift abused women by helping them regain their self-confidence so they can begin the process of separation from their abusers. Ana Bella refers to herself and others like her as "survivors" instead of victims, and she has built an organization that she says is "enabling abused women to empower themselves."

Her own personal story is compelling and courageous. Ana Bella explains that she left her marriage and took her small children along with her to escape abuse. What she quickly discovered was that there was little support for women in her situation. In fact, she says forty percent of women return to the home of the abuser because existing support does little to help women truly find their way back into society. It is hard to find work because of the stigma attached to being a "victim." Thus, finding housing and meeting other basic needs on a lasting basis is difficult to achieve.

Ana Bella's story of entrepreneurship is equally fascinating. She built on her own difficult experience by creating a network of survivors that is growing by more than 1,000 women each year. Her first client, so to speak, was an abused woman from Portugal living in Spain, who Ana Bella put up in her own home because she had no housing to offer the displaced immigrant. When Ana Bella got her first grant and formed her own organization, the Ana Bella Foundation, the Portugalian became her first employee.

Since then, Ana Bella has worked out agreements with banks in her country to turn foreclosed homes into shelters for transitioning women. She has also acquired land from financial institutions and has enlisted others in her community to work together to build additional housing for survivors of domestic violence.

A key service her organization provides to other women is to help them transition from victim to survivor. This is especially important as they try to find their way into the workforce. Like Ana Bella, many have never even held jobs before. "There are certainly challenges to survivors of abuse," she says. "But we don't concede to the victim label." Ana Bella adds, "We highlight to prospective employers the qualities we survivors possess, like perseverance and our ability to rise above extreme adversity."

By defining themselves rather than allowing others to define them, the women who are part of the Ana Bella Foundation network are resisting the stereotypes that have long been foisted on abused women in Spain. This is helping them as they work to get housing, get jobs, and get back on their feet. Most importantly, as Ana Bella puts it, having overcome violence in their own personal lives, these women are using the strength they've discovered to act as change agents that are breaking the generational chain of gender violence.

And they are creating a lasting impact on society.

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