The remarkable Brita Fernandez Schmidt, Executive Director of Women for Women International, may be the most important women’s advocate you’ve never heard of. Brian Noone reports on her vital mission
It is no surprise in our data-driven age that charitable giving most often comes down to measurables: $20m can buy four million mosquito nets or pay the annual salaries of 500 teachers or construct one-tenth of a small hospital. The tidy numbers reassure us that there is real change happening in the world.
Framing donations this way also ensures some degree of accountability from the charitable institutions themselves: tales of mismanagement and mislaid funds have left many donors understandably wary of giving money with no strings attached.
Such is the challenge that greets Brita Fernandez Schmidt every day at the south London headquarters of Women for Women International, the charity she directs. Her herculean task is to inspire support for a cause where numbers can’t begin to represent the full story.
WfWI supports women in conflict and post-conflict zones round the globe. The women in need are the people most frequently forgotten about, most vulnerable when the law is unenforced, and in many respects most important for rebuilding the societies that have been riven apart by violence.
The charity seeks, in Brita’s words, to give “training, support and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and economic self-sufficiency”. It is a task that is not as simple as gifting a mosquito net, nor as easily subject to quantification.
Which is not to say Brita has no use for figures: regularly in contact with governmental institutions and NGOs round the globe, conflict death tolls, literacy percentages, quarterly economic growth figures and other statistics trip off her tongue like the most seasoned bureaucrat.
But these numbers don’t much matter to her, not really. There is one number that she mentions first, and it comes up each time you speak with her: 447,000. It is the number of women the charity has helped since its foundation in 1993, and when she says the number at a presentation in London or Paris or New York, you can see in her eyes some reflection of the pain that these 447,000 women have had to endure, the stories that many of them have shared with her and the untold horrors that go along with so many conflicts round the globe.
It is profoundly affecting to hear her describe her experiences and those of women she knows. Many times, audiences cry. Sometimes she cries. Witnessing tragedy together, even at a remove, is an intensely powerful experience.
She is remarkably democratic with her energy – and that, too, is affecting. “There is something everyone can do,” she says with genuine optimism. “I am as grateful for a large multi-million multi-year corporate commitment as I am to an individual who says I will sponsor one woman through your programme. It all matters – every single penny.”
Her dedication to the cause is such that even her downtime is given over to campaigning: “The other day I was at a photo shoot and getting my make-up done. I told the make-up artist about our sponsorship programme and that evening she signed up!”
The sponsorships fund a 12-month curriculum where, she says, “women learn about their rights, as well as key life, vocational and business skills to access livelihoods and break free from poverty”. They are essential skills, but ones that are only measurable in makeshift ways like the economic output of the whole community.
For Brita, the connection with women’s empowerment and the conflict zones is more vital: “There is no security without development, and there is no development without security. They go hand in hand.” She continues, “Much of the insecurity we see and the breeding ground for terrorism stems from poverty and inequality. So we know that without security it is difficult for the women we support to pursue the skills they have learned and improve their livelihoods, but without access to knowledge and resources, it will also be very difficult to stabilise and achieve security long-term.”
What’s more, there is evidence that training women may also be more straightforwardly economically beneficial: “The World Bank estimates that women reinvest up to 80% of their income into their families and communities.” Which means the impact of the WfFI programme is “positive for everyone, not just women”.
Born in Germany and transplanted in her teenage years to Venezuela, where she had her first encounter with “real poverty”, Brita’s passion for justice arrived quickly thereafter and has only deepened with time. It is a passion that she is quite open about, even with her family. Two summers ago she took her two teenage daughters to Bosnia, where WfWI was founded, for a peace march that was tense with soldiers and policemen but turned out peaceful – and, in her words, “it changed their lives”.
On how she remains sane amid so many stories of extraordinary hardship, she recourses to an uplifting metaphor: “When it is really dark and you suddenly see a bright light, it appears particularly bright – and that is how I see the courage and bravery of the women we work with. It shines through and fills me with hope even in the midst of the most difficult circumstances. I hear many heartbreaking stories; some of the women we work with have lived through unimaginable horrors – loss, rape, murder, genocide, torture. The strength of these women and how with the right support they not only survive, but thrive is incredibly inspiring and is what motivates me every day.”
Her remarkable approach has drawn plaudits from development workers and philanthropists round the globe, but more importantly for her, it has also contributed raising funds to help more women. Most recently, she says, “we were able to raise enough money to help over 400 women in northern Iraq, and that number will grow over the next year”.
When asked directly why one should give, she has a heartfelt reply: “The most compelling argument for me is that I can directly connect to another woman and give her financial support, but also and much more importantly for me – I can give her hope.”
She also has a reply that shows that she understands the perspective of more traditional donors: “Others give because they know that we monitor our work very carefully and that we will report back on our impact after the investment.”
In conflict zones, the nuts and bolts of rebuilding can sometimes be overwhelming, but thanks in part to the tireless work of Brita, there are moments of growth, happiness and success, however we choose to measure it. womenforwomen.org
NetJets Magazine, 2016