Anyone who has witnessed the effects of gender-based violence knows that victims enter into a vicious circle they can only dream of escaping. Fear is paralyzing and victims’ self-esteem virtually disappears. Both the physical and psychological injuries hurt but, in many cases, they can still reinvent themselves.
Almudena and Covadonga*, two extremely courageous women, are examples of this and proof that things can change. They show us that victims of gender based violence can find peace, be happy again, and get their freedom back. These days, they both work and are independent and, most of all, they once again have a positive outlook on life. “It’s like being reborn,” says Cova. “Now I feel like I’m worth something and that my opinions matter. I’ve started to leave the house again, laugh, and now all I want is to make up for lost time: work, exercise, go out with my friends, travel, and help others,” she continues. Almudena affirms that “nobody should have to put up with abuse and victims can escape. They need a helping hand, but it is possible.” Nowadays, she is delighted with her new job: “It’s not at all related to my old job or what I studied, but I’m happy with the change, happy to wake up every morning and go to work.”
Both are around 40, went to university, have several Master’s on their résumés, and were tireless professionals until, one day, everything took a wrong turn and their nightmares began. They are both victims of gender-based violence and their ex-partners turned them into insecure, shy, ashamed, and financially dependent women. “Over time, you slowly get yourself in a situation where you feel trapped,” says Almudena. “I couldn’t look people in the eyes, I felt small, so small,” adds Covadonga. They didn’t have the confidence to go outside, go shopping, or express their opinions, never mind make decisions. Thankfully, this period of their lives is already in the past.
Almudena and Covadonga took part in different editions of Women moving toward employment, a program led by Fundación Integra and Fundación Repsol which aims to provide support to women who have suffered gender-based violence and help them look for work and get back on the job market. For these women, work is a fundamental tool for achieving independence. “Thanks to this program, I’ve been able to turn my life around and finally get the ball rolling again,” Almudena comments.
No one said it would be easy. Cova signed up to the program after 20 years of married life. “I wanted to work. I didn’t care which job, I just wanted to get out of there. I felt weak and ashamed, but I signed up.” Almudena remembers how nervous she was on the first day of the program: “it had been a long time since I had got up and got ready to go out, and I didn’t really know what to expect.” There, she met a group of ten women in the same situation: “as we started to talk and get to know each other, I realized that we were all at different stages of the same process. I’ll never forget how the instructors constantly reminded us that we were there to support and be there for one another.” Little by little, the program helped them overcome their fears and restart their lives which, as Covadonga puts it, “were on standby.”
Both Almudena and Covadonga agree that it’s thanks to the program, which became the most important and motivating activity in their lives over a six-month period, that they can now look in the mirror and see a strong woman determined to start from scratch. Almudena remembers how, during the sessions, the group brainstormed ideas of how to solve different situations. This was how she rediscovered her old skills and discovered some new ones: “I got my confidence and self-esteem back, and I realized I’m actually very creative.” As for Covadonga, she tells us that in the sessions she learned skills that will help her in her work, from both a professional and work-based perspective. However, by far the most important thing is how they helped her to build her self-esteem: “I realized that I was worth something and that people value me, that they listen to what I say. I’ve started interacting with people again and I’m getting stronger with each day that goes by. Also, I really want to help.”
All the instructors, psychologists, and social workers from the course, as well as the women themselves, are the ones who really make the change possible. The conversations with other participants, the bond that is created between the group members, is another factor that helps them change their lives. “The program strengthens what we all already have inside, our worth, but, in the end, the change comes from within,” says Almudena.
Six months to move toward employment
The “Women moving toward employment” program, which is developed in Spain, was launched in 2014 and since then it has seen four editions, helping 71 women. It is a comprehensive six-month training course — three months of theoretical classes and three months of practical experience — in which, for four hours every day from Monday to Friday, participants work on personal and professional empowerment and explore different ways of entering the labor market. Volunteer Repsol employees also participate in several sessions, helping these women to place value on their skills, improve their self-esteem, create support groups, and increase their confidence so that they can successfully enter the world of work.
One of these volunteers is Charo Montes, who has given the Creativity techniques workshop for the past three years. Through this activity, she aims to “teach the women to identify problems, give them a name, and learn how to ask themselves the right questions to begin thinking outside the box. In this way, they think laterally and construct a mental map in order to see the situation from different points of view, as this is the only way to find solutions. The idea is for the women to realize that they are the ones who trigger the change, that it comes from within. If this message gets through, then my work is done.” She finds volunteering on the project so rewarding that she would like to see similar projects in other companies. “Companies have a responsibility toward the society they are part of, a responsibility to create a social culture.” And this is not just the responsibility of companies: when it comes to gender-based violence, we must all play our part and be forward-looking to prevent yet another case.
* Almudena and Covadonga are fictitious names. The real names of the women who shared their story have been changed to protect their identity and privacy.