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Incredible Women

Brita Fernandez Schmidt’s golden rules

Women’s-rights advocate Brita Fernandez Schmidt is executive director of Women for Women International, the charity empowering thousands of female survivors of war through a year-long program. Originally from Germany, Brita went to school in Venezuela and has worked with women from more than 16 countries. To mark #GivingTuesday, she shares some of the lessons she has learned, both in and out of the field

If you don’t feel normal, just stop for a minute and think, who determines what normal is?

Find things that make you happy. It looks like I’ve known what I wanted to do from the moment I chose women’s studies, but that’s not the case. But I always wanted to do something that made me happy.

When we’re ‘head-heavy’, we can get stuck. Inspiration is felt in the heart and the gut, not the head, and the way it feels is fierce. The ‘fierce’ is waiting for you to acknowledge it, to allow it and believe it.

Have a boardroom of inspirational people in your heart that you can tap into when you’re feeling removed from your ‘fierce’. In my boardroom, there are women who are survivors of war in countries like Rwanda, Bosnia, Nigeria and northern Iraq.

Where there is darkness, there is light. It’s a hard lesson to learn when you’re talking about women whose children have been killed in front of them. I’ve learned so much from these women – above all, never to give up hope.

We all want our lives to have meaning. In 2009, the first woman I sponsored, Amela, was from Bosnia. She wrote to me saying she wanted to thank me because she was so happy that I knew she existed. I took her letter with me wherever I went to show the power of simply saying to someone else, “I see you”.

I kept focusing on the logistical reasons that I shouldn’t have a dog. But I really wanted a dog to go running with in the fields in the morning, and I wanted my daughters to grow up with a dog, so I focused on that. Now I have two dogs. Just get the dog.

Don’t label people. When I was younger, I was put in this box that I was passionate, but I’m also very reflective. I don’t make the assumption that I know my daughters just because they are my children. I’m changing every day, and it’s the same for others, too.

I love mentoring young women, because I always learn something. The flipside of that coin is you know who your cheerleaders are. They are the kind of people who say, “I can see you’re fierce, I can see your power – you go, girl.”

With our sponsorship program, you are writing a message to a woman in another country, allowing yourself to connect. When I travel, women come to me with their letters and photos and say, “This is my sister.” Know that you matter and your actions matter.