For as long as she can remember, Brita Fernandez Schmidt has been committed to making a difference. Her mission? To work against inequality so that women can reach their full potential.
“My purpose has been to do what I can to create a world with more equality, where women can fulfil their potential,” she told HuffPost UK. “Working with Women for Women International (WfWI) directly allows me – every day – to fulfil my purpose.”
WfWI works with marginalised women living in war-torn countries, by providing support and care to help them rebuild their lives. The women are not only vulnerable economically through displacement from their homes, but often at risk of gender-based violence.
The charity enrols women on a year-long course to equip them with the tools to become economically independent. The hope is that each woman will be able to “create a sustainable future for herself, her family and her community”.
For Schmidt, mobilising the sisterhood is not just a battle to be fought overseas, but also on our own soil.
Speaking of January’s Women’s March, which saw millions of women across the world take to the streets following the inauguration of Donald Trump, she said: “We MUST nurture that incredible uprising, that collective power that manifested our strength and our beliefs... When we know that we are not alone, we become invincible.”
HuffPost UK spoke to her for our Fierce series about the importance of self-care, society’s fear of successful women and why we need a women’s march every month.
What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning and keep pushing forward?
“There is not a day that I do not think about the women who I meet in countries affected by conflict, their stories, their trauma, the unspeakable experiences that they have had to endure, but also their strength, and their incredible hope that they can improve their lives. It is that hope the charity invests in, and it is that hope that gets me up in the morning.
“I fundamentally believe in the power of the individual, that every single one of us can make a difference and I also know that if we come together we can be even stronger, way more than the sum of our parts. That is what gets me up in the morning.
“I see the difference that I can make together with my team, for example when we are successful with a funding application for our programme in Northern Nigeria, where it really seems that the world has forgotten women, and I know as a result of us pushing forward we can now help another 300 women to enrol in our year-long life skills training and they will be able to transform their lives.”
What was the last thing you did that made you proud?
“I don’t really like the notion of feeling proud, it is more that I feel so happy and grateful when I see that my work and my intention is having an impact. I am grateful that I’ve been able to lead WfWI and that we have grown such an incredible community of supporters, who are donating their time and their money to help women in countries affected by conflict.
“One very recent and concrete example is our work in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. A few years ago as I was following the crisis in Syria and the refugee crisis in neighbouring countries I was reading about the plight of the Yezidi women and girls. I kept thinking about my daughters and that this could be them being held as sex slaves. It was an unbearable thought. So together, at WfWI, we took action, we got our supporters together and we raised over £500,000 within six months which kickstarted our programme that is now helping over 300 women with psychosocial counselling and our life skills programme. That is amazing and I am so grateful for it.”
Who inspires you and why?
“Women who follow their passion. Women who are committed to their truth and will speak it no matter what. Women who don’t mind being pioneers, who don’t mind being the odd one out.
“Women who overcome unspeakable challenges, like the women I meet in countries like Nigeria, Rwanda, Bosnia, and who don’t give up, who dare to dream and take their lives into their own hands. They are my inspiration and they give me strength every day to follow my dream and support other women to fulfil their potential.”
How do you think society views successful women?
“I think change is something that is very scary to many people, so of course ambitious and successful women don’t fit in that stereotype. I think that can be challenging for women, because not only is it not easy to be successful per se, but on top of that we are having to work hard at not caring that we will receive societal backlash.
“I can speak from experience, for such a long time I simply could not allow myself to even think of myself as ambitious…I am glad to say that I am over that and I could not be more ambitious, because I want to change hundreds of thousands of women’s lives and no one will stop me, definitely not any societal views.”
Does success have a downside? If so, what is it?
“This question goes back to the fact that you decide what success looks like for you and I definitely make sure that my version of success does not have a downside, because success is not restricted to your ‘career’, success for me is about leading as fulfilled and happy a life as possible, and that includes for example balance between work, family, leisure, friends etc.”
How do you practise self-care and why is it important?
“Sometimes, to see the darkest parts of humanity and what it does to women is unbearable. It cuts off my air supply and I get deeply sad. But I have learned to breathe through it. To acknowledge the pain that exists in the world and to focus on the hope and on the fact that change is possible. Zainab Salbi, the founder of WfWI, would always say ‘Who are we not to have hope?’ and that is something that I and all of us at Women for Women International hold very dearly and close to our hearts. We must never give up hope. That is not an option.
“Personally, it is also really important to look after my body and mind, so I have my healthy habits. I get up every morning around 5.30am and go for a run with my dog Bruno. Then I get back and drink a hot lemon and prepare a green smoothie with whatever greens I can find in the fridge. And on my way to work, on the train, I meditate. Those are my four daily self-care habits. I love them and they work for me.
“And the other thing I started a few years ago, is getting my nails done every two weeks – totally indulgent and unnecessary – but I love it. I think self-care is so totally important. I know that if I don’t look after myself, I won’t be able to continue to achieve my purpose, so this drives me. I have also recently started to regularly write in a notebook - not a diary as such, but to reflect on different things. I find that really helps me.”
What’s your biggest regret? And what did you learn from it?
“Another one of my mottos is definitely ‘No Regrets’ – precisely because you learn from mistakes, so why regret them?
“Do I wish that I had had the confidence that I have now when I was younger? Yes absolutely. But I also know that I only have the confidence I have now because of everything I have learned, all the experiences I have been through, the mistakes I have made.
“My most important learning is to trust my gut instinct. I still sometimes forget to listen to even the tiniest niggling feeling, but I know that it will come at a cost. So I have learned to really trust myself, even if no one else does.”
If you had one piece of advice for other women, what would it be?
“Go for it – you don’t need external validation, the only validation that you should listen to is your own. And know that you already have influence and power – no one needs to give it to you, you claim it, you own it!”
What’s the one thing you would change or do in 2017 to push women forward?
“We need a monthly Women’s March like the one in January – we MUST nurture that incredible uprising, that collective power that manifested our strength and our beliefs.
“We need to find ways to be together – connected in our differences but joined in our common humanity. We need to be bold and brave to stand up for our values, and when we know that we are not alone, we become invincible.”