Photos: Women for Women International
Executive Director, Women for Women International UK
Tell us how your upbringing affected your choice of career?
Both my parents were teachers and when I was 14 my father accepted a job as a teacher at the German school in Caracas, Venezuela. Looking back now I can see that this move changed my life completely.
I witnessed poverty and inequality in a way that I had never seen before and it ignited a deep passion in me to change this level of inequality – especially since it affects women so disproportionately.
Do you have a role model?
I don’t have one role model, but I have many women who have inspired me in my life and who have spurred me on to follow my dreams.
They are women who have stood up for what they believe in, who have let go of any fears and who have persisted when the going got tough.
“One of the best pieces of advice I received a few years ago was to stop doing and start being….I am all about the action… but being means to be still, to observe, to know that change will come even if you don’t immediately jump to action. To trust that your very essence, your very being is enough sometimes.”
Can you tell us about the Sisterhood programme – how do participants come to know the programme?
At the heart of Women for Women International’s work is the belief that connections are vital for us all and most certainly for rebuilding after trauma.
To know that you are not alone is very powerful.
My ‘sponsor’ sister lives in Rwanda for example and her name is Brigitte – I actually met her recently when I travelled to Rwanda. Because we work with the poorest women in countries affected by conflict many women learn about our programme through word of mouth, perhaps their village leader will tell them, or a neighbour, but we also use radio jingles.
Once we have told them about our programme, women then decide to enroll and they go through our programme in classes of 25 for one year. We provide them with access to knowledge through training and access to resources through a cash stipend – combined with the connection and emotional support this leads to real tangible and sustainable change in their lives.
Can you share any specific stories from your interactions with these women?
I remember travelling in Bosnia a few years ago and I met two women, who I could tell were incredibly close and I assumed they were sisters. When I got talking to them, they told me that they had graduated from the Women for Women International programme 3 years ago, and they had met during the programme and had since become inseparable.
They had both been affected by the conflict, had lost family members and were very poor. They have now set up their own business making creams using medicinal herbs, which they learned how to grow during our course.
I often think of them, because not only does it show me the power of knowledge, but the power of bringing women together, out of isolation, back into a sense of community and belonging.
“Change is possible and it is incremental, one step at a time, that is very important for me. The way I do that is by thinking about the women who I have met, their stories of hope and strength and resilience. So I focus on that, and it helps me to overcome these challenges.”
What do you consider your biggest achievement to date (career & personal life)?
I always find this a difficult question to answer because I don’t think of anything as just ‘my’ achievement. I am at my best when I work with people and that is when the magic happens and together we achieve so much.
I also love how my husband and I have been nurturing our daughters – seeing how they are growing up and what a difference you can make if you instill confidence from an early age, that is magic and I am happy about this every day.
You support so many women through your work, how important is your support system?
It took me a long time to realise how important it is that we first look after ourselves before looking after others. So my support systems are really very important because if I am not well both physically and emotionally, then I cannot do the work that I am so passionate about. My biggest support system is my family and so making time to be together is super important for me.
What would you say to those who want to help empower others?
I love that question – because it is one of my biggest realisations and what I am writing about in my upcoming book and that is that you cannot empower others, you can only empower yourself. But when you empower yourself, the impact on those around you is phenomenal.
So your best way to help to empower others is to empower yourself and then be super open and honest about your journey because that will inspire others to follow their path.