Looking into Ana Bella’s mirror
A one-time victim of domestic abuse has created a foundation to help women in the same situation
She talks about how she escaped her own personal hell and how she turned an idea into reality
There is a woman in Seville with green eyes, a broad smile, passionate rhetoric and a name right out of the Baroque era: Ana Bella Estévez Jiménez de los Galanes.
She repeats again and again that it is possible to pull oneself out of a situation of domestic violence and build a new, positive life.
Ana Bella knows all about this subject, as do many of the 1,200 women she has helped through the foundation that she created in 2006.
The idea came to her after the city-funded support group she was attending was canceled.
“Seville City Hall slashed the budget, and at first we were using my own home as a meeting place. But then I took out a personal loan of €6,000 from Banco Santander for some small business premises. I began to study so I could draw up the foundation’s charter, since I didn’t know much about the subject; I asked other associations, and finally three people helped me get it registered,” she explains.
That same year, the Ana Bella Foundation won €25,000 in a social-inclusion project competition. They used the money to create a catering service that gives jobs to victims of domestic abuse.
“That way, we feel useful and appreciated,” she notes.
To hear her now, speaking so enthusiastically about her own support group for abused women, it is hard to picture her being humiliated for 11 years by the man she married at the age of 18.
After graduating from high school, Ana Bella, who wanted to get a college degree in translation, went on vacation to Marbella with her father. One morning she walked into an art gallery and saw a man sitting in a corner, painting. After a few minutes’ conversation, he gave her one of his works as a present. A few days later, she wrote him a thank you note. He then came over to see her, telling her she was the love of his life. And she believed it. The fact that he was 42 would not be an obstacle to their happiness, he promised. Come with me, leave everything behind, he told her.
And despite her entire family’s opposition, she did just that.
The screams, the insults and the violence began soon after that. He began to control her entire life: “Don’t go out alone. Don’t talk to other men. Don’t read. Don’t watch TV. Don’t stand more than three meters away from me. Behave. If I hit you it’s because I love you.”
There were periods of calm and periods of anger. But the tension and the despair were always there. Ana Bella soon became a walking bundle of fear, and was constantly crying. Her four children were born in the middle of all of it.
One afternoon, while sitting with her mother-in-law inside a hospital waiting room, she saw a poster on the wall urging abused women to dial a phone number. She memorized it and called late one night, while nobody was listening. Then she put her children into her car and drove to a shelter, where they stayed for three months, getting psychological and legal assistance. Then she spent eight more months in a supervised apartment while the separation proceedings got underway.
It was not easy for her to go and testify in court. Ana Bella felt afraid and ashamed, but she knew she had to do it, for her children as well as for herself.
“At the age of 30 I found myself with no money, no work and no home. The only thing I had was a piece of paper that said, ‘Ana Bella, domestic violence victim.’ And I ripped it up! If after everything I’d been through I was still alive and well, then I was a survivor, not a victim. I could have just sat down and cried all day long, every day. But I didn’t feel like it! I found a steady job at a telephone company and enrolled in law studies at the UNED distance university. But with a job and four kids, it was going to take me 10 years to become a lawyer. So if I wanted to help other women going through what I went through, I had to do something else. I had to start a foundation that would allow us to create a network,” she explains.
Now that she had a new life, Ana Bella Estévez Jiménez decided she wanted to dance again. So she signed up for salsa and bachata lessons. “I have a blast,” she says. This same kind of enthusiasm fuels her trips to national and international symposiums, where she encourages women to report gender violence and tells them that being victims of abuse does not cancel them out as individuals.
Her outreach work takes on added importance considering that in the nearly 10 years since domestic violence legislation went into effect in Spain, more than 600 women have been killed by their partners. Of the 54 who died last year, only 11 had filed a complaint, according to the Health Ministry.
Since 2010, complaints have dropped nearly three percent a year. The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights reports that 22 percent of Spanish women say they have suffered domestic abuse, which is less than women in other EU countries, including Denmark (52 percent) and France (44 percent), though this is because the number of formal complaints has dropped.
Of the 22 women killed so far this year, only six had reported the abuse. But Ana Bella does not think that 2014 is a special year. “There is more information now, and growing numbers of women who recognize that they are suffering domestic violence. But unfortunately, this figure has been common other years as well.”
That is why Ana Bella has been on TV several times to talk about her own case.“Without covering my face or distorting my voice,” she adds. “I go out there without fear, to say that it is possible to go on with your life, that filing a complaint is the first step to avoiding more deaths and becoming part of the solution, and for society to stop treating us like victims, and treat us like survivors instead.”
On April 7, the justice, interior and health ministers agreed to ask Congress for a comprehensive review of the domestic violence law, claiming that the government needs to do more to combat this type of aggression. Some of the measures being called for include specialized personnel to analyze individual cases, and an overhaul of the questionnaire that evaluates the risk of suffering domestic abuse.
These days, Ana Bella is very busy with her many tasks (including her salsa), and she has tried to forget the man who treated her wrong for over a decade. But not long ago, she sat in front of the computer to read her Facebook messages and was struck by one particular post, in which a woman said: “Everything you have said in your talks and in the media (the screams, the insults, the jealousy, the blows), my cousin is suffering. Because my cousin is now your ex-[husband]’s girlfriend.” Ana Bella could not believe it. “Of course! I’d forgotten that there might be another woman in my place!” she says. “I could not personally help this girl, but someone from our foundation got in touch with her and with her family, and just like me, she was able to leave him and get out of that situation just in time. She got out because we can all get out. Let them look in this mirror.”