From creating human connections to improving security, the values of Women for Women International align with the factors identified by Quintet Private Bank as being essential for a Richer Life. Here, we find out how this global organisation transforms the lives of women in conflict affected countries.
'That human connection is at the heart of what we do and it’s very special.'
Brita Fernandez Schmidt
Like all the best ideas, Women for Women International sprung from a simple act: writing a letter. At the height of the Bosnian war, Iraqi-American humanitarian and founder, Zainab Salbi, asked her friends in Washington to become ‘sponsor sisters’ and write to 30 isolated women in Sarajevo. The aim? To show them that they weren’t invisible, that someone cared. That was 1993; now Women for Women International is a global organisation that has supported over 500,000 marginalised women in eight conflict affected countries, including Afghanistan, Nigeria, Rwanda and Kosovo. ‘That human connection is at the heart of what we do and it’s very special,’ explains Brita Fernandez Schmidt, UK Executive Director.
The charity’s year-long core training programme is ‘Stronger Women, Stronger Nations’. It aims to build support networks and self-reliance by developing vocational skills; improving knowledge about health and rights; and making women’s voices heard, both at home and in their community. The responsibility for implementing the programme lies with the offices in each country where the staff are all nationals who understand the culture. ‘This is important; it is not run and led by expats but by locals,’ says Brita. ‘Our approach is holistic. We aren’t giving someone a little hand out – we are investing in women because we know that when they are given knowledge and resources, they can transform their world.’
Brita has countless stories of incredible women who have gone through the programme - many of which are told in her new book, ‘Fears to Fierce’. For instance, there’s Cinama in the Democratic Republic of Congo whose father died, leaving her mother to bring up seven children with no income (the family land was given to Cinama’s uncle). She now runs her own brick making business.
'Being able to meet unbelievable women, and men, who dedicated their lives to change and seeing how that was driven on the ground was so inspiring.'
Brita Fernandez Schmidt
There's also Abiola in Nigeria, whose husband and oldest child had been shot in front of her during a violent clash with the Hausa-Fulani cattle herders. Abiola later studied small business management and became a Change Agent through a follow-up programme that nurtures women with natural leadership qualities. The programme encourages women to pass on what they’ve learnt to their neighbours and children, creating a ripple effect in the community.
‘A few years ago, I visited the Riyom district in Nigeria and was invited to join a peace dialogue meeting between the farmers and the herdsmen,’ recalls Brita. ‘Previously these two groups wouldn’t talk to each other but after seeing their sons and husbands killed, the Change Agents got them to sit down together and forge a peace agreement with the support of the local authorities. Everybody spoke about how much it meant to them and there was acknowledgement within the community that it had been initiated by the women.’ Women for Women International also run a Men’s Engagement programme, which works with men in the community to challenge discrimination and support women’s rights.
Of course, the practical elements of the programmes are vital but the emotional support that Women for Women International provides is transformative too. Brita recalls a visit to Rwanda where, after a welcoming dance by a group of women, she met Fatuma. ‘She had so much vibrancy that it was hard to connect that to the atrocities she had been through. Rebels had raped her and her daughter, and cut her unborn child from her womb. She told me it was reconnecting to other women and realising that what had happened to her wasn’t her fault, that was a life-changer,’ she continues. ‘What Fatuma above all represents for me is the power of bringing women together and giving them a space where they can heal. She has become a woman who speaks up and out, in the hope that it will give comfort to others.’
Helping to restore someone’s sense of being by offering them hope and a new purpose is something that has driven Brita since she was a teenager. A key turning point was when her family moved from Germany to Venezuela after her parents were offered teaching positions at the German school in Caracas. ‘Before then, I hadn’t really experienced or seen poverty firsthand and it was a real awakening. I couldn’t get my head around the fact that there were pockets of wealth and the country was very rich in resources, yet had this extreme poverty,’ she recalls. ‘I also realised that although inequality affects everyone, 70 per cent of the poorest people in the world are women. I wanted to do something about that.’
'Even in the darkest times, you can find the light. I remember thinking... I am going to try and find hope and make it my business to invest in that hope.'
Brita Fernandez Schmidt
After completing a MA in Women’s Studies at the University of Sussex, Brita worked in the European Women’s Lobby in Brussels; followed by a ten-year stint at women’s rights organisation Womankind Worldwide. Brita worked her way up to become Policy and Programmes Director - looking after 60 humanitarian programmes across Africa, Latin America and Asia. Across each programme, she worked with local and national organisations to drive change in communities. ‘I grew so much as a person. Being able to meet unbelievable women, and men, who dedicated their lives to change and seeing how that was driven on the ground was so inspiring.’
Brita remembers one young woman in Ethiopia, Beatrice, who had undergone female genital mutilation at the age of three, and was forced to marry a 40-year-old when she was 11. ‘It was one of those horrendous stories you never forget. How do you go on living after that? I asked her, what are your dreams and her face lit up as she told me that she wanted to learn English. It made me realise that it’s a choice; even in the darkest times, you can find the light. I remember thinking: this is what I am going to do. I am going to try and find hope and make it my business to invest in that hope.’
Brita had already read Zainab’s book, ‘Between Two Worlds Escape from Tyranny: Growing up in the Shadow of Saddam’, when a recruiter told her that the charity was opening an office in the UK. ‘It was one of those moments when everything aligns,’ she says. Since she joined the organisation, it has grown in all kinds of ways. In 2018, it launched the Conflict Response Fund, a separate funding pool to offer more rapid help. This includes projects such as supporting young Rohingya women with vocational skills in one of the largest refugee camps in the world, situated in Bangladesh. Brita also oversaw the opening of an office in Germany and has bought high-profile ambassadors, such as Dame Helen Mirren, on board to raise awareness.
'Ultimately, we can all trust that fire within to create the change we want to see and live a richer life.'
Brita Fernandez Schmidt
As you’d expect, the work of Women for Women International – and those they are helping – has been affected by the pandemic. ‘We know from experience that the most marginalised are always disproportionally affected by any crisis and it’s been no different with COVID-19. Life for women has become more difficult and dangerous with food shortages, a rise in unemployment and gender-based violence,’ she explains. ‘We also know that the effects will be long-lasting. The UN has estimated that by 2030, 200 million people will be in poverty due to COVID-19 – and women will be the worst hit.’
In the short term, the women on the programmes responded to the crisis by pivoting their vocations. For instance, graduates in Rwanda have produced over 28,800 masks, and those in the DRC supplied soap to the community. Meanwhile, Change Agents in Nigeria travelled to various districts to educate people about social distancing, hand washing, and wearing face masks. ‘During COVID-19, we realised that on some occasions we can condense the knowledge that we’ve been giving to women over a year to make a more immediate impact. Also, in some countries where women have mobile phones, we gave them sim cards so we could stay in touch and provide them with vital information,’ she says. ‘We hadn’t done that before so now we will be looking at how can we use technology more effectively.’
Brita is also a life coach; ‘I encourage women I work with to find a purpose. It allows you to overcome any fear or obstacles,’ and isn’t daunted by the task ahead. ‘It’s really important to acknowledge that change has happened to keep hope and continue,’ she says. ‘The number of poor people is going to grow; the need is going to grow so we need to think about how we can use what we’ve learnt to reach more women. Our approach sees real results; so the aim is to work with donors to upscale – currently we reach 12,000 women a year, let’s quadruple that. Ultimately, we can all trust that fire within to create the change we want to see and live a richer life.’