TO CELEBRATE International Women’s Day this week, The Olive Press sought out some of the most inspiring women from across Spain to shine a light on the work they do serving their communities in their adopted homes and to ask them their thoughts on 8M.

Betty Burgess, Canary Islands

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Betty Burgess, 81, was awarded a British Empire Medal (BEM) for services to British Nationals Overseas by the Queen in the UK’s New Year Honours List in 2020 for her volunteer work with the British community on Gran Canaria.

Her activities include promoting the great historical, social and economic impact of British settlers to the island; working tirelessly to maintain a British presence through her work with the British Club of Las Palmas, the Holy Trinity Anglican Church and the British Cemetery; and supporting the most vulnerable British nationals through her voluntary work.

She reflects on how far Spain has come since she first arrived more than fifty years ago; “I could only open a bank account in my own name with my husband’s consent and in 1968 learnt I was “lucky” that my husband let me work, but that it was wise to work in a “feminine” type of job.”

“Spanish women were, nevertheless the powers in the home and many I met were strong people who even then caused me to reflect that once they gained more liberty they would be a force to be reckoned with.”

“Nowadays there are more women graduates, more women throughout the professional spectrum and any glass ceiling has, I humbly submit, been broken.”

Veronica Wheeler, Costa Brava

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Veronica Wheeler, 79, lives in Lloret de Mar in Catalonia’s Girona province where she is President and volunteer coordinator of British Benelevolent Association of Girona province from French border down to Blanes and acts as coordinator of The British Legion, roles for which she also was awarded a British Empire Medal (BEM) for services to British Nationals Overseas.

Her work became more valuable than ever during this last year’s coronavirus crisis when the organisations stepped in to help those vulnerable Brits who were separated from their families back home.

“This year has been hectic for both organisations, for 5-6 months after the first lockdown I worked full-time helping those who were separated from families in the UK. They were often on their own, older and developing mental health problems and quite financially precarious. We provided  support and helped find the practical help that they needed.”

Speaking about Women’s Day she said: “I was always fortunate because my father always told me that I could achieve whatever I wanted to do, so I never thought as a woman I would be held back. That’s so important, it’s about teaching the younger generation, particularly the boys actually, that there is no difference in what people can do regardless of their gender.”

Charmaine Arbouin, Malaga

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Charmaine Arbouin is the British Consul for Andalusia, Canary Islands, Ceuta & Melilla. Based in Malaga she covers the region of Spain that has the largest concentration of British residents.

“International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women – both past and present; those who have shaped and transformed our world, whether that be politically or in the fields of science and culture. But it’s also a moment to reflect on what still needs to be done and that’s why this year’s theme of Choose to Challenge matters. We must all choose to call out bias and inequality, so that we have even more great female achievers to celebrate in the future.”

Leah Pattem, Madrid

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Madrid No Frills has far exceeded the expectations of Leah Pattem, who created the blog four years ago to showcase for the less-celebrated parts of Madrid.

“Before the pandemic, Madrid’s small, local businesses were struggling because of gentrification, rent increases and evictions, and they were the very places that I loved about Madrid and still do! So I thought, ‘how can I help?’. And I thought what they needed was a shout-out – the kind of shout-out larger businesses can afford through advertising and sponsored posts. Except I would do it for free because I enjoy interviewing, writing, taking photos, and also the reaction it got from my audience.” 

Pattem’s blog may have had no-frills beginnings, but it has now grown into a platform that most Madrileños have heard of. Her photographic collection of 100 no-frills bars went viral in 2019, and she’s even been featured by El País, Condé Nast and the BBC. But despite her recognition, the principles of Pattem’s blog remain exactly the same as they did from day one.

“I’ve realised that with almost 30,000 followers, I have the influence and, to some extent, the responsibility to do more. I’m now been driven to bring real-life stories told by the very communities that don’t receive the coverage they deserve. I want people to understand how racism, exploitation and poverty are pre-assigned fates chosen by those in power, and how communities experiencing this are overcoming it together. This growing platform that I created is for their stories to be told – for their unfiltered voice to be heard by you.”

Asked what Women’s Day means to her and what more needs to be achieved, Leah brings up the media. “There aren’t enough women voices in journalism. The press holds a lot of social power and this power is held by a small group in society. Representative discourse does not yet exist because not enough of us are holding the camera, the pen or the mic.”

Leah Pattem is now teaching fellow bloggers and journalists everything she knows about socially conscious blogging and content so that more marginalised voices can be given the platform they deserve. Her next course will run in May – find out more details here!

Suella Winston-Campbell, Costa Blanca

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Suella Winston-Campbell selflessly runs an animal charity in the Costa Blanca called Big Reds Animals Association.

All of her time is devoted to looking after lost, found and stray animals in the area. 

With a small team of volunteers, she looks after cats, dogs, pigs and chickens on a near subsistence-level in what was a derelict farmhouse on the edge of Catral. Fundraising events were typically done at pubs and restaurants, but – for obvious reasons – that’s all been on hold.

She eventually got permission to open the Big Reds charity shop in nearby Almoradi on the morning of 13th March, 2020.

But by that lunchtime the country was going into lockdown and the shop had to close after only a few hours’ brisk trade.

But through all of this, she’s kept her faith in the dozens of generous donors and the general kindness of strangers throughout the region.

It doesn’t stop there though, the onset of poverty for some local families has been alleviated by Suella’s additional collections of food and clothing for the needy.                                                                                             

She said of International Women’s Day, “I admire so many women these days, it’s fabulous that so many manage to run successful businesses and a family in these taxing traumatic times.”

Moira Carmenate, Costa Blanca

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Moira Carmenate founded The Expat Centre in Ciudad Quesada 18 months ago for Brits to come and get help about anything to do with their life in Spain. This “one stop shop” has grown massively through word-of-mouth, helping thousands of expats to get unbiased clear help and free advice. 

Her team of advisers work on a collaborative basis to give clients advice on legal services, wills, residencias, insurances, investments and her own low-priced funeral plans business.

Previously, she broke through the City of London’s ‘glass ceiling’, at a time when women struggled in a male-dominant sector, by becoming sales director and board member of a highly regarded financial services institution.  

She later moved on to transformational therapy and trained, coached and developed international business leaders, enabling them to drive important changes in their organisations. 

After personal tragedies throughout her life, “giving up” is not a trait of Moira’s and she continues to inspire both men and women to move their lives forward.  

Her book “In a Mental Fog”, explains more. Moira said, “International Women’s Day is a day to remind all women in the world that they are not alone, whatever struggles they may be facing, reach out to someone as there is always an answer. 

“Whatever successes they have, it’s good to share, but this goes for men too. Sometimes we forget to pat ourselves on the back and a day of international celebration gives us that reminder.”

Krista Hyer, Mallorca

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Back in 2011, a Mallorca resident was given the devastating news that they had cancer.

With a desire to speak to someone who truly understood, a plea was posted on the AngloInfo website for fellow sufferers to get in touch.

Krista Hyer, a qualified counsellor who had nursed her sister through the illness, saw the message asking if there was ‘any English-speaking support group for cancer patients in Mallorca?’ and by fate, replied.

Krista wasn’t sure if such a group existed, but she decided that if there wasn’t one, she would be the one to start and Cancer Support Mallorca was born. 

“There just didn’t seem to be any cancer counsellors on the island and I knew something had to be done,” Krista told the Olive Press.

In just one year, once isolated patients were supported by a 24-hour helpline and regular meetings were created with buddies joining the group to hold the hands, quite literally, of those recently diagnosed.

The range of support provided by the now registered charity has grown exponentially with Krista herself helping families to navigate through the bureaucracy of Spanish hospitals, and as a qualified counsellor, offering her own services for free.

As well as being handed the Citizen’s Award by Calvia Council in 2013, Krista was awarded a prestigious British Empire Medal for services to British Nationals Overseas in the New Year Honours List in 2020.

Krista spoke of the ‘great honour and privilege’ to receive the award and in her true altruistic self, thanked all those that had volunteered and donated ‘as without them, Cancer Support Mallorca would not exist’.

Ali Meehan, Costa del Sol

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Ali Meehan, from Fuengirola, founded Costa Women more than 10 years ago. The group was designed to connect women who were living in or moving to the Costa del Sol. Now there are thousands of members across the whole of Spain and the islands. When lockdown was announced Ali was just 24 hours away from the start of their International Women’s Day Conference.

“We had hours to take the conference online, but we did it. From then on, we have created a much stronger online presence, we have connected in more than 230 online events and we have increased our membership across Spain.

“We have totally adapted our business model as a result of what has happened to fit the new world. It has been very hard to keep a positive focus at times, but I believe it is my role among the chaos to stay motivated, engaged and supportive for our members. We have heard many heart-breaking stories from our members, but we have worked with them to help and find solutions,” she added.

Do you know an inspirational woman working to serve her community in Spain? Get in touch so we can share their story.

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