Saturday, October 10, 2015

Exclusive interview with Brita Fernandez Schmidt, Executive Director of Women for Women International UK


On 16th September in London, the art world came together for a special event held at Bonhams to create transformational change in the lives of women survivors of war. It was an exclusive evening of installation, performance and fundraising – all to raise vital funds to support women survivors of war and conflict and the fantastic Charity Women for Women International. 

I was invited to take part and be in the Junior Committee for this event and it gave me an opportunity to meet Brita Fernandez Schmidt who serves as the Executive Director of Women for Women International UK. She is responsible for the operation and management of Women for Women International in the UK and Europe.



We caught up for an interview and she gave me brilliant insights into the role and directions of the Charity. She is very inspirational. Here's the exclusive interview for Art is Alive.

How was Women for Women International born and what's its role?
War destroys the peaceful rhythms of life, stripping families of loved ones, destroying economies and livelihoods. Communities become unsafe as armies and militia advance; schools disband; clean water becomes a luxury; medical centres have few supplies; and jobs, crops and cattle are lost, spreading hunger and poverty. Women suffer the most unspeakable violations and struggle to fulfil numerous roles with next to nothing in hand. Yet, they remain the beating hearts of families and communities, bringing enormous resilience to the daily task of survival and to calling for peace. 

WfWI exists to equip the most marginalised women in war-torn countries with the tools to rebuild their lives and communities. The organisation was founded in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1993 in response to the terrible conflict and its systematic targeting of women and girls as a weapon of war, and since then we have supported almost 430,000 women in Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Iraq, Kosovo, Nigeria, Rwanda, and South Sudan. We believe that with access to knowledge, skills and resources, and with a supportive environment, women are empowered to make decisions and to better support their families.

What are the main challenges as Executive Director of this great Charity?
I am sure like many others, I find it hard to read the news these days. The conflict in Syria has been raging for more than four years; over 11 million people have been affected, including over 3 million refugees. In northern Iraq alone there are at least 240,000 Syrian refugees and approximately 80% of them are women and children. 

It does not matter what conflict we speak about – women are always disproportionately affected- and in some cases, women are directly and deliberately targeted by groups like Boko Haram and ISIS. 

More than ever, this tells me that the work of Women for Women International is needed now more than ever – we need to reach out to those who do not have access to resources, who do not have access to knowledge, who cannot feed their children and who feel powerless because they do not possess any skills to earn a living. We need to empower women and invest in their potential.  I am constantly inspired and motivated by the incredible women we work with – by their courage, their resilience, and their determination to build a better future for themselves and their children. 


Can you give us a few examples of fantastic projects carried out by Women for Women International please?
Though it is a shocking truth that women bear the disproportionate brunt of war’s destruction, it is equally true that peace and stability cannot take hold without them. World Bank research found that women reinvest 90% of their income back into families, (compared to 30-40% by men). So, when women are empowered to participate economically, socially and politically, they transform not only their own lives but also the lives of those around them. 

Our 12 month programme is designed to expand women’s capacities to earn and save money; promote health and well-being; influence decisions in the home and community; and create and connect to networks for support and advocacy. Women receive a training stipend; numeracy training, if required; and choose to receive technical training in a market-appropriate vocational track. We teach basic business skills – such as bookkeeping, marketing, and sourcing raw materials– to help women earn an income from their skill. WfWI also supports women to work in cooperatives, to pool resources, and increase production.

We have seen that as women’s knowledge and earning potential grows, so does their confidence to change the world around them. To give just a few examples:

·         Women’s average daily income in the DRC rose from just $0.76 at enrolment to $2.14 when graduating from our programme 12 months later. Similarly in Nigeria, income rose from $0.42 to $2.18 by graduation, and $0.72 to $1.40 in South Sudan.
·         Additionally, social empowerment also greatly improves. 93% of graduates in Afghanistan, 98% in Kosovo, and 84% in Rwanda, reported educating another women on their rights at graduation, compared to just 2%, 1%, and 11% respectively at enrolment.

What’s the most rewarding thing about your job?
I am motivated by thinking about the amazing staff in our country offices, who are so dedicated and committed to supporting women, despite the incredibly challenging circumstances that they face. Their bravery and their courage is so inspiring. 

Tell us a bit more about your career: main campaigns, previous experiences etc.
 I have been at WfWI for 7 years. Before joining Women for Women International, I led the programmes and policy work of Womankind Worldwide, an international woman’s human rights and development organisation based in the UK. I was the Chair of the Gender & Development Network and served as Trustee to BOND, a British network of development organisations, and contributed to its strategic development. I also sit on the Management Board of Gender Action for Peace and Security (GAPS) and I have advised numerous other organisations and institutions, including the UK Department for International Development, on gender, women’s rights and development.

What are the future projects of the Charity?
Recently, we have started to bring our 20 years of experience to the Syrian refugee women who are at the mercy of the war – and the She Inspires Art event will help us to raise funds for this initiative. We are working with women in Kawergosk Refugee Camp near Erbil, Northern Iraq.  Women in the camp are struggling to survive every day. They have had very traumatic experiences, they have seen their loved ones killed, and of course have lost everything. They had to walk for miles and miles to a place of safety. 

We have been working with local partners to provide women with psychosocial counselling and business training. Firstly, we aim to create a safe space for women to heal psychologically from the damages done by war. The business skills training continues the healing process by giving the women a motivation to live with hope for the future.

Here is one wonderful example of a business venture: one of the most popular businesses set up by the women we have trained is a wedding shop. Four women have come together and set up a shop selling clothes for brides and wedding guests, as well as providing make-overs and hairdressing services. Weddings are very important in Syrian culture and this wedding business helps maintain a certain level of normality in the refugees’ lives. Whether or not you live in a refugee camp, you want to have a normal life, to get married and enjoy a special occasion. 


Is She Inspires Art the first art initiative by Women for Women International?
Our last art project was the ‘Artists for Women for Women International’ initiative in 2011. What is so different about She Inspires Art – is that so many artists have created bespoke pieces of art inspired by the work of Women for Women International.



Is Women for Women International offering help with the terrible Syrian crisis?
As mentioned above, in November 2014, WfWI began a pilot project to support a local charity that supports Syrian widow-headed households who are currently living in refugee camps near Erbil in Kurdistan, northern Iraq. As part of this unique project, 420 marginalised women refugees, who are widows or managing single-headed households, were identified. To meet the desperate need for improved incomes, 20 of these women took part in a specialised business skills training course and were provided with ongoing advice and mentoring to create a business plan, access finance, and grow their businesses. We also set up a women’s safe space in the refugee camp where 400 women received psycho-social counselling, an essential need for so many women after the trauma of conflict, loss and displacement. We are now determined to develop this work into a longer-term support programme for Syrian women refugees, and internally displaced Iraqi women who have no support structures, and we are hoping to raise the vital funds needed for this project at the She Inspires Art event. You can see more detailed information about the project here.

What can people do to help the Charity?
You can sponsor a woman through our training programme for £22 a month – just over 70p a day. Visit www.womenforwomen.org.uk/sponsor to find out more

You can partner with us and sponsor a classroom – a donation of £16,200 could give an entire class of 25 women access to skills training and rights education, empowering them to transform their community together, for good.

Please contact supportuk@womenforwomen.org for more information.

Thanks Brita for this interview!

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