Interview: Brita Fernandez Schmidt, executive director of Women for Women International UK

Women for Women International
Brita Fernadez Schmidt

Brita Fernandez Schmidt is executive director of Women for Women International, which is staging its #sheinspiresme Car Boot Sale fashion fundraising event at the Brewer Street Carpark in Soho this weekend, hosted by Alex Eagle and The Store in partnership with The Outnet.com.

A range of fashion industry names from Charlotte Olympia to Temperley London and M.i.h. Jeans will be staging boot sales during the event to support the charity and its work in rebuilding the lives of women survivors of war.

Fernandez Schmidt talks to The Industry‘s Renee Waters about the charity’s vital work, its origins, and how and why it has forged such close links with the fashion industry.

How was Women for Women International formed and what is your agenda for the UK organisation?

Women for Women International was established in 1993 in response to atrocities committed against women during the Bosnian conflict, when an estimated 20,000-50,000 women were subjected to rape and sexual violence as a tactic of war. Survivors were left struggling to provide and care for their families – often as sole breadwinners – whilst dealing with trauma, stigma, and loss. Women for Women International was set up to provide solidarity and services to help these women rebuild their lives. Since then we have supported more than 479,000 women across eight conflict-affected countries: Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Sudan, and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where we work with displaced Syrian, Iraqi and Yezidi women.

Our work is rooted in the reality that during conflict, it is women who are impacted the worst – although they are rarely combatants. Their stories don’t make the headlines, and they are rarely included in peace negotiations or policy-making, so their suffering is often invisible and unaddressed. Gender norms restrict access to jobs and income, exclude them from decision-making, and expose them to many forms of harassment and abuse – including rape as a weapon of war. Yet despite these stark vulnerabilities, women are instrumental in both caring and providing for their families at times of crisis, often stepping outside traditional domestic roles in order to survive.

Our mission at Women for Women International is to provide these women with knowledge, resources and skills to rebuild their lives, lift themselves and their families out of poverty, and to create sustainable positive change in their communities. We provide women with a 12-month social and economic empowerment programme that builds self-reliance in four key areas: earning and savings; rights and decision-making; health and wellness; and support networks. Women receive hands-on professional and vocational training to start a small business and begin earning an income.

Our UK office was set up in 2005. In addition to raising critical funds for our programmes, the UK organisation has a critical remit of amplifying the voices of marginalised women in conflict-affected countries and ultimately influencing change at the international level, by bringing their voices and experiences to the attention of key funders and decision-makers, as well as to the general public.

Why is this mission important and what change do you expect it to yield?

Investing in women living in conflict-affected countries is a fundamental human rights issue – these are some of the most marginalised and vulnerable people on earth, who experience gender inequality at an extreme level. More than half of the women in our programmes are illiterate. All earn less than $1.25 a day. Many are widows, refugees, or survivors of rape and abuse. In every way you can measure life chances – safety and security, household income, education, economic prospects, health, access to justice – these women have been left far behind. They are also the least able to make themselves heard – whether at the family level, where women are typically subordinate – to community decision-making and national and international politics. So they have few avenues to challenge the status quo and improve their own situations.

I firmly believe that we should be tackling this systemic inequality that threatens women’s lives and wellbeing, and limits their potential, and that empowering the most marginalised women is the right thing to do as a society. But it is also extensively proven that empowering women is critical to breaking cycles of poverty and stimulating economic growth and human development. According to World Bank and other expert research, women share the benefits they earn with those around them, investing in health, education and nutrition for themselves and their children. These are the building blocks of thriving societies, and that is why empowering women is the crux of any effective recovery and rebuilding process after conflict.

We can prove that investing in women yields far-reaching benefits. To evaluate our programme results and impact, Women for Women International uses a comprehensive survey system that tracks women’s progress at enrolment, graduation, and one and two years after graduation. Standardised data is collected from participants across a range of indicators designed to measure changes in knowledge, skills and behaviours. Our global results from 2016 show that women were able to make significant positive changes in many areas of their lives:

  • Earning and saving money: Women say their earnings have grown – on average, women report daily personal earnings of $1.07 at graduation, compared to $0.34 at enrolment.
  • Improving health and well-being: More women say they practise family planning – 87% report they practise family planning at graduation, compared to 30% at enrolment.
  • Influencing decisions: More women say they participate in household financial decision-making – 91% report participating in these decisions at graduation, compared to 63% at enrolment.
  • Connecting to networks: More women say they share information about their rights with other women – 89% report educating another woman about their rights at graduation, compared to 10% at enrolment
Brita Fernandez Schmidt at work in Kosovo

How does the organisation operate privately or with other government/charitable organisations?

We have offices in each of the countries where we operate, each with an experienced team of local staff who deliver our training programmes directly, in the communities where they are most needed. Women for Women International is one of the few international organisations that has been working exclusively at the intersection of conflict, poverty and gender equality for over 25 years – so we have built up a significant base of knowledge in what works to accelerate and sustain women’s empowerment in these fragile settings. Our country teams work closely with communities and with local government to identify the women who are most in need of our 12-month social and economic empowerment programme. We use specific selection criteria to target the most marginalised women who are most in danger of being left behind because they live in extreme poverty, are affected by violence and conflict, and endure myriad forms of social and economic disadvantage.

We also build partnerships with other non-governmental and charitable organisations in our programme countries. For example, advanced training in coffee production in Rwanda is provided by our partner Sustainable Harvest, and in Afghanistan, our local NGO partner Zardozi Markets for Afghan Artisans provides business training in sectors such as embroidery, beadwork and tailoring, and helps women find markets and procure orders for their products.

We also work with healthcare providers to make it easier for our participants to access health services, particularly in remote areas, through negotiating free health training, screenings, and lower rates for care. Similarly, we partner with financial institutions to facilitate women opening bank accounts for saving. We work with a number of legal and human rights organisations to improve women’s access to justice and ability to advocate for their own rights.

Who supports Women for Women International and the UK? How do you seek supporters and corporate support?

We have an incredible range of corporate partners at the moment, including NET-A-PORTER, Mint Velvet, ELEMIS, Charlotte Tilbury, LK Bennett, Chinti & Parker, Monica Vinader, Selfish Mother and Posh Totty Designs.

We are lucky to have strong relationships in the fashion world which has led to many of our partnerships; several of our ambassadors including Charlotte Olympia Dellal and Alice Temperley are renowned designers, and we have put on a number of high profile fashion shows and a very successful Car Boot Sale event at Brewer Street Car Park (taking place this year on 12 May) hosted by Alex Eagle and The Store and in partnership with THE OUTNET.COM.

Some of our Trustees are also very well connected, and introduce us to new designers and brands. I believe our track record of successful partnerships is a large factor in our success with securing new partners so it’s a great, positive cycle.

There is an engagement that includes men and boys into the program to support women who have survived war and conflicts. How are males engaged in the program and how has their activity changed their perceptions and actions towards women? 

We work directly with men because we know that to create real and lasting change in women’s lives, it is vital to tackle the underlying cultural norms that perpetuate gender inequality – the beliefs and attitudes that normalise violence against women and girls, curtail their rights and freedoms, and silence their voices. Women cannot do this on their own – men need to be actively involved.

Over 15 years, our pioneering Men’s Engagement Programme has trained over 21,000 male leaders and community members on women’s rights and gender equality, to ensure they actively support women’s empowerment and tackle discriminatory and harmful practices in their daily lives and relationships.

Our results to date have been significant. For example, in 2015/16, 99% of the religious and community leaders we trained in Afghanistan reported an increase in positive attitudes regarding women’s roles in family decision-making, including use of household income and children’s schooling.

Helping women in Rwanda

Where (geographically) do you see the most need for supporting initiatives that facilitate better lives for women and their families?

With the rise of the #MeToo movement, it’s never been clearer that gender inequality is a pervasive problem in every county on earth. Yet in countries affected by conflict, the stakes are particularly high. The barriers women face are often life-threatening and they are perpetuating cycles of poverty and violence.

I am particularly concerned about women living in conflict zones that have faded from the international headlines, or in post conflict settings where the fighting may have de-escalated or ceased but lives, communities and economies have been devastated. Women living in these settings are doubly overlooked and there is a profound lack of support and funding. For example, in 2017, 1.7 million fled their homes because of escalating violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo – an average of 5,500 per day. In Afghanistan, civilian deaths reached a record high, with 9.3 million people facing food insecurity.

Women for Women has announced several partners and initiatives this year that include several in the creative and fashion industries. For example, there is a car boot sale in May — how does this industry support the Women for Women initiatives? Why is it important to align with fashion?

Our corporate partners support in a variety of ways – cause-related marketing (donations from products), event sponsorship, percentage sales donations, collections in their shops and fundraising by employees. As well as benefitting from the funds raised, which help us achieve our mission supporting women survivors of war to rebuild their lives, corporate partnerships are a fantastic way to raise awareness about our work with a new audience. As a small charity in the UK we do not have the funds to run advertising campaigns, so exposure to the staff and customers of our corporate partners is invaluable.

I think fashion partnerships are important because I believe that fashion is a powerful form of expression. It’s a statement to the world about your style, your individuality, your passion – what you wear has a big influence on how you feel about yourself.

A lot of our joint campaigns harness the power of fashion to boost confidence; we see the important role of confidence in women’s lives mirrored in the impact of the Women for Women International programme.

A vital component of the Women for Women International programme is building the confidence of women who have suffered the unimaginable – bereavement, torture, sexual violence. Their basic rights, freedom and identities as women are stolen and used as a weapon of war. Yet when given the tools, resources and knowledge to access livelihoods and protect their rights, women can literally transform their families, communities – and ultimately their nations.

What is the 5-10 year plan for Women for Women UK and what goals do you intend to reach by then?

There has never been a greater need for the work of Women for Women International – with over 30 armed conflicts in the world right now, and overwhelming numbers of people forced to flee their homes because of violence. We see every day that women are being hit the hardest by these crises and desperately need support to keep their families afloat. To meet this unprecedented need, over the next 5 years, we aim to:

  • Reach at least 15,000 women survivors of war each year.
  • Engage 6,500 men per year as advocates for women’s rights and economic participation across all our target countries.

In addition to supporting individual women, now is a critical time to share what we do and take our lessons to scale, by amplifying the voices of the women we serve on the global stage. Therefore, our UK organisation needs to:

  • Strengthen our approach to organisational learning and advocacy, to create a strong and persuasive evidence base about investing in women in conflict-affected countries – to ensure that more funding is available.
  • Ensure that the experiences of the women in our programme, and the challenges they face, are brought to as wide an audience as possible and connected to a global movement to tackle the root causes gender inequality. In 2016, we launched our #SheInspiresMe campaign to shine a light on the often over-looked achievements and contributions of women and inspire the next generation of female changemakers.

This summer we are planning our first ever #SheInspiresMe Live event, which will bring together inspiring activists, thought leaders, and feminist trailblazers from all walks of life – with a focus on equipping women and men to find their voice and take their own action in support of gender equality – just like the women in our programmes are doing.

The Women for Women International Car Boot Sale takes place tomorrow at Brewer Street Carpark, Soho from 1pm. Tickets cost £10 and can be purchased on the door.