How You Can Help The World’s Most Vulnerable Women Today

“89% of the women we work with report an increase in their self-confidence,” Executive Director of Women for Women International UK, Brita Fernandez Schmidt tells Refinery29. The charity – whose global events are attended by the likes of Hillary Clinton, Bianca Jagger and Salma Hayek and whose British ambassadors include Dame Helen Mirren and GoT actress Sophie Turner ­­– provides life-changing support to girls and women in war-torn countries. Since 1993, they have served close to half a million women in Rwanda, Nigeria, South Sudan, the Congo “– countries where women were mass-raped as part of war,” Brita explains. “In Afghanistan and northern Iraq we work with Syrian refugees and Yezidi girls who have been held as sex slaves by ISIS from the age of 12, 13, 14 – the age of my daughter – and they’ve lived through this for a year and a half. It is unspeakable.”
Photo: Alison Baskerville/Women for Women International.
Dalal is a 22 year old Yezidi woman. She lives in Khanke camp with her 3 brothers and 6 sisters. 12 of them live in 6 tents, 3 living rooms and 3 bedrooms. This is their home. They have been there 2 years. She says she left Sinjar because of Daesh, they heard that Daesh were coming and they were scared of being killed. 18 family members packed into 2 cars. They fled to Sinjar Mountain, where the family got separated. She says, u201cI want people to know how much our people have suffered, how tired we are and how much danger we were in. But we are still alive.u201d Dalal was introduced to Women for Women International and the Warvin Centre through her friend Nasrin. She is learning about gender based violence u2013 previously she knew only of physical violence, u201cNow I know that there are many types of GBV: economic, deprivation of food and money, emotional violence u2013 if someone hurts you or hates you.u201d
The women the charity help are also among the poorest populations in these countries, “some of whom can only feed their children once a day,” Brita explains, “that is seriously stressful.” Stress management is a module in the year-long programme the charity offers; it starts with the base-level stress of feeding children and fetching water, and moves throughout the course of the year to coping with the post-traumatic stress of war, the loss of loved ones, and sexual violence. “We don’t necessarily talk about ‘depression’ or ‘mental health’, but we do talk about ‘trauma’ and the effects of ‘violence and conflict’,” Brita says. “Just addressing mental health issues isn’t the solution, we also need to look at their confidence, at how isolated they are; we need to help them build social networks, give them access to knowledge about their rights and provide them with practical skills so they can earn and sustain an income. And more than that – to be productive. I know for myself and for the women that I meet, whether in the UK or in the countries that we operate, if you don’t have access to knowledge, if you don’t have the ability to be productive – whatever that may mean for you – it will make you feel depressed.”
Refinery29 is partnering with Women for Women International in a series of live-streamed discussions about mental health as a global women’s issue. The first features Brita, the journalist and TV personality June Sarpong, and founder of Blurt Alerts, Jayne Hardy. Tune in on Tuesday at 1pm at
Below, we hear more from Brita (pictured here after her interview on Woman’s Hour on International Women’s Day this year) about how the programmes work, and how you can get involved by sponsoring a woman through the Sisterhood programme.
How does Women for Women International work in the mental health arena?
The most important thing to acknowledge is that Women for Women International works with the whole woman. So the way we approach mental health is through the various outcomes that we focus on. We understand (and the World Health Organisation shows this very clearly) that if you have less agency in your life – if you are poor, and you don’t have access to resources and you don’t have opportunities – it’s more likely that you will feel depressed. If you feel there is nothing you can do about your life, it’s very hard. And if on top of that, you have directly experienced trauma, whether losing those close to you, or experiencing sexual violence – often multiple times – if these things aren’t addressed, they will lead to depression. In northern Iraq we work with about 600 women, some of whom are Yezidi girls who were taken by ISIS and kept as sex slaves and managed to escape. In August 2014, ISIS went into Sinjar and captured 2,000 or 3,000 Yezidi girls. Under the ISIS ideology, if you rape a Yezidi virgin, you are honoured in the afterlife. So these girls are raped every day. Sometimes by several men.
How do these girls hear about you?
We work with local organisations who are working in refugee camps, so the organisation is present in the camp and there is a centre where women and girls can come. We are very careful not to advertise in the camp, ‘Traumatised women come here!’ – that would lead to stigmatisation in the camp, so it’s much more about offering a safe space, which goes back to our holistic approach: we take the whole woman, we get to know her, and then we understand her needs, and it becomes very clear to our trainers immediately which women need trauma counselling. Some just need to be brought together in a circle of trust. We put women in classes of 25, to build trust, so that there’s the opportunity to disclose to another woman in the class. What we often find is that just by providing women the opportunities to access new knowledge, and treating them with respect, often after a few months, they will disclose to a trainer.
The women hear about us through word of mouth; maybe one woman has been through the programme and she now has a chicken, and another woman sees and asks, ‘How do you have this chicken?’ and then she’s told about Women for Women International. Or the village elders or community leaders tell women about our programme – we always start by talking to community leaders first, so they come and we tell them about our programme and we also ask them questions to assess which women need help the most. Then we explain the format of the programme and then we put them in classes of 25.
Photo: Alison Wright/Women For Women International.
Katana, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Women listening to Dady Mukenge, who has been a life skills trainer with WFW for 9 years. Most of these women have suffered effects of the war: loss of family, looting, and rape. Today they are learning ways to make money, how to save: inheritance, small business, raising animals.
What happens in these classes?
I’ve attended classes under a tree in the village square, and others in community schools after school is finished. I was in Nigeria a month ago and attended a class in a half-finished building. We sit on mud floors, maybe some wooden benches. The majority of the women we work with are illiterate so training materials are always pictorial. In these classes, I see how women support each other in learning. We have one trainer per class and different trainers for the subjects we teach so we have modules around sexual health, and nutrition, and rights, and how to cope with the double burden of trying to earn an income and look after the family and fetch water and so on. The trainers are amazing – trainers have such a key role – encouraging women to believe in themselves.
Are trainers local people?
Yes, all local. Sometimes they are women who’ve been through the programme themselves, so of course they are amazing role models. They are incredibly committed and passionate women who feel really strongly about helping women to empower themselves.
How do you start speaking to these girls, who have been held as sex slaves by ISIS, about what they’ve been through?
We give them a safe space. We don’t start talking about the trauma until they are ready. We do art and music, we allow them to be human beings again, which is the most important thing that we can do. At the beginning, they don’t talk, they don’t say a word, they just sit there. Then, as time goes by, they start to reconnect. From what I understand from women who have experienced sexual violence, you have to shut yourself down in order to survive. So you have to start to reconnect with yourself, with the desire to learn.
Can you share any specific stories?
There are so many. There was one Yezidi girl, aged 19, and she was held captive for a year and a half and she was so worried that she was going to die that she carved her name into her forearm so that her parents at least would know, if she died, that it was her. She also stitched her parents’ phone number into her hairband, because ISIS wouldn’t find it there, because she was so worried that she would lose her mind and forget the number and then if she escaped, she wouldn’t be able to contact her parents. This girl did manage to escape, and she contacted her parents, and she came to the Free Yezidi Foundation that we work with in northern Iraq. She was traumatised. Through the programme she was able to connect again with her own sense of value and desire to live. She became really involved with helping to run the centre and the woman who ran the centre asked her to become an assistant. She couldn’t believe that someone believed in her. You can survive even the most horrendous traumas with the right support.
How many women are there in the programme?
Last year we had 20,000 women in the programme. 89% of the women report an increase in their self-confidence. We collect a lot of statistics but that is the most important one, because if you believe in yourself, if you believe you are worth it, you can do it.
Do you work with the government?
We work really closely with the Department for International Development and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (the FCO), and a little bit with the Ministry of Defence. Those three are responsible for looking after the UK’s position on women, peace and security. I have a small team that works on policy and advises the government about what we are learning from working with women in the most dangerous situations, and they are very receptive to that. We are also part of a network called Gender Action For Peace & Security [Brita is the chair of this organisation] and the government consults with us. We are just finishing a consultation with women on the ground in Syria and Afghanistan for those voices to feed into British policymaking around women, peace and security, because next year they are going to launch a new action plan, i.e., what is the UK going to do to promote women, peace and security. We are directly linking the voices of the women – the voices no one hears – with policymakers. The solutions need to be based on their needs.
Can you tell us about the Sisterhood programme – how people can get involved here?
The Sisterhood programme is my favourite thing we do at Women for Women International. I was telling you about the women who enrol in our classes – 25 women – those women are all matched with a sister in another country around the world. I have a sister, she’s called Brigitte, she’s in Rwanda, I’m hoping to meet her in July. Sponsoring a sister is £22 a month, you sign up online, and then you will be matched with a sister, sometimes it takes about a month. Then you get a letter telling you who your sister is, with a photo of her, and a bit about her life like… she has two children, she’s between 30 and 35 (sometimes women don’t know their age), and you hear about what she’s learning in the programme. Then you are encouraged to write her letters, and you can do this online and upload photos of yourself and your family if you like. You can’t imagine what this means to the women. When I travel (because I’m white and they think I’ll know other white women), they come to me and show me photos of their sisters in the UK, tucked into their bra, and say, ‘This is my sister, do you know her?’ It’s this sense of knowing there’s someone on the other side of the world who cares enough to support them and write letters to them. It’s beautiful. I’ve had wonderful relationships with sisters; you think you are giving, but you get so much back.
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