Women for Women International’s Brita Fernandez Schmidt on empowering women with NET-A-PORTER

March 7, 2019

This International Women’s Day, NET-A-PORTER is reinforcing its commitment to gender equality, by launching six exclusive t-shirts with Women for Women International, a non-profit organization that helps women living in war-torn countries to rebuild their lives. Designed by Victoria Beckham, Isabel Marant, Ellery, Rosie Assoulin, Alexa Chung and Perfect Moment, all profits from the collection will go towards Women for Women’s vital work. Ahead of tomorrow’s 8 March celebrations, we speak to one of the incredible women leading this campaign, Brita Fernandez Schmidt, Executive Director of Women for Women International UK.

For the second year in a row, NET-A-PORTER’s special International Women’s Day t-shirt collection will donate proceeds to Women for Women International’s year-long training programme. Could you tell us more about your work and what the programme entails?

Women for Women International is dedicated to empowering women living in some of the world’s most dangerous places. Since 1993, we have helped almost half a million women in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Rwanda, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The women we serve face violence and poverty, and experience gender inequality at its most extreme. They are often prevented from going to school, having a job, owning land, and making decisions about their own lives. Yet they play vital roles in keeping families and communities afloat, farming the land, bringing up children, and often stepping into new roles as sole breadwinners and heads of households.

When they join our 12-month training programme, women come together in classes of 25, meeting other women who have been through similar experiences – so they are no longer on their own. They learn practical skills to start a small business and begin earning an income, and they learn about their health and their rights.

With over forty active conflicts in the world today, there has never been a greater need for our work, and support from partners like NET-A-PORTER, helps women rebuild their lives, break cycles of poverty and seize opportunities to create better futures for their children.

Last year, Women for Women International and NET-A-PORTER’s collaboration raised enough funds to support over170 women through the programme. What impact does this activity have on the women you work with?

Our campaign with NET-A-PORTER raises vital funds, transforming the lives not only of the women we work with but also their families and entire communities. To give you an example, last year I travelled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the first time and met an incredible woman called Cinama. Her father died when she was three, and her family’s land was given to her father’s brother, and so her mother lost everything, left to bring up 7 children with no source of food or income. Cinama enrolled onto our programme and learnt practical skills – economic empowerment, how to be financially self-reliant, women’s rights and decision-making. Cinama also chose to learn brick-making as a vocational skill, and after graduating, started her own brick-making business, forming a business collective with a group of other women.

She now supports her family, has built a house, provides food for her mother and siblings, and has even become a Women for Women International trainer herself. Cinama is an incredible inspiration – just like the 495,000 other women that Women for Women International has helped.

This year’s NET-A-PORTER t-shirts each carry a slogan; a message celebrating women from the inspiring female designers behind the collection. What would your favourite empowerment slogan be?

#FearstoFierce!! It is my favourite motto and it was the subject of my TEDx talk about moving from fears to fierce. Your fierce is the true essence of who you are.

What does gender equality mean to you?

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

Sisterhood is integral in the fight for gender equality everywhere. So much more can be achieved when women come together in support and we see this all the time with our work. One of the most important parts of our programme is bringing women together in classes of 25, meeting other women who have been through similar experiences – so they are no longer on their own. It is this same sisterhood approach that inspired our collaboration with NET-A-PORTER; uniting six female designers who, as empowered women themselves, can inspire others to empower themselves.

At Women for Women International, you also involve men in your engagement programmes. What do you see their role is in reaching equality?

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 29,000 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.

How do you think businesses can contribute to reaching equality?

There are so many ways businesses can contribute to change from cause-related marketing to percentage sales donations, and fundraising by employees. Our work with NET-A-PORTER  not only raises funds which help us achieve our mission supporting women survivors of war to rebuild their lives, it is also a fantastic way to raise awareness and reach new audiences. As a small charity in the UK we do not have the funds to run advertising campaigns, so exposure to NET-A-PORTER’s colleagues and customers is invaluable.

I think our NET-A-PORTER partnership is particularly 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. This campaign harnesses the power of fashion to boost confidence, and confidence is a vital component of the Women for Women International programme, helping to create change for women who have suffered the unimaginable.

Tomorrow, you will spend International Women’s Day with our YOOX NET-A-PORTER London-based colleagues, to inspire them to join the Women for Women International movement. If you could ask everyone to do one thing to help, what would it be?

To celebrate International Women’s Day this year, we are asking everyone to get involved with our #MessageToMySister campaign. It takes the idea of sisterhood, which is at the heart of Women for Women International, and expands it. It’s really easy to take part – just write a message of hope and friendship to a woman survivor of war and we will collect them from 1 to 8 March and then spend the rest of the year hand-delivering them to the women we serve. I will be spending International Women’s Day at the YOOX NET-A-PORTER headquarter writing notes with their teams, but everyone can get involved by writing a note online at womenforwomen.org.uk or post on social, tagging @womenforwomenuk and #MessageToMySister.

The other thing I would love people to do is to sponsor a woman, you can join the sisterhood by directly sponsoring one sister to go through our holistic programme for 12 months. Just £22 a month will fund her training for a year, you can write letters to her and really help transform her life. I think it is amazing and have been doing it myself for over 10 years, I met another sister last year when I was in Rwanda and it was incredible, she showed me the letters I had sent her and you could really tell how much it meant to her.

Discover the NET-A-PORTER x Women for Women International collaboration

Photo credits: Elizabeth Gibson

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