IWD2024 Feature - "Women of VWB" - Charmaine Brett, Executive Director, VWB North America.
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"Women of VWB": Introducing Charmaine Brett, Executive Director, VWB North America

To celebrate International Women's Day 2024, we are releasing a week-long series featuring “Women of VWB”. The Women of VWB are effective and powerful change-makers who #InspireInclusion daily. They demonstrate the diversity of VWB thought leadership and expertise around the world, and all that it takes to promote animal, human, and environmental health!

Today, we introduce you to Charmaine Brett, Executive Director, VWB North America. In this interview, Charmaine shares her perspectives, her experiences, and her passions for One Health and women's empowerment.

Q: Can you share a bit about your background and how you became involved with VWB?

A: My career has been guided by a profound commitment to fostering health and well-being across communities, animals, and environments worldwide. This passion has taken me from frontline humanitarian efforts to strategic leadership roles in various global organizations, culminating in my current position as the Executive Director for VWB in North America since July 2021.

My journey began in educational and operational roles, including teaching and managing international volunteer programs, which laid the foundation for my dedication to global health and development. My tenure with organizations such as Doctors Without Borders and Action Against Hunger honed my skills in program management, strategic planning, and emergency response, directly impacting communities in need across continents from Africa to Asia.

Transitioning to the role of Program Officer for Disaster Relief and Recovery at MARGARET A. CARGILL Philanthropies further expanded my perspective on the crucial interlinkages between human welfare and environmental sustainability. Here, I was instrumental in deploying over 100 million dollars in strategically aligned grants, enhancing our collective impact on disaster recovery and resilience.

What motivated me to join VWB was the organization's unique mission that resonates deeply with my lifelong dedication: the interconnectedness of animal, human, and environmental health. The “One Health” concept is not just an academic term for me; it has been a recurring theme throughout my career, from managing health programs in conflict zones to spearheading initiatives that build resilience in the face of natural disasters.

My motivation stems from a belief in the power of integrated health approaches to create sustainable change. Seeing the tangible benefits of our work on communities, animals, and their environments fuels my commitment to VWB and the broader mission of “creating a healthier, more resilient world".

Q: How does VWB contribute to One Health?

A: One Health recognizes the interconnectedness of the health of people, animals, and the environment, and at VWB, we operationalize this concept through various projects and initiatives across the globe. For instance, our work in the northern regions of Laos exemplifies this approach. In collaboration with local communities and international partners, we focus on improving the health and welfare of livestock, which is a critical component of the local economy and community well-being. By enhancing veterinary care and implementing community-based health programs, we not only improve animal health but also address zoonotic diseases, which are diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans. This directly contributes to the health and safety of the community members, demonstrating the One Health approach by linking animal health with human health and livelihoods.

Moreover, our initiatives are not limited to direct health interventions. We also prioritize capacity building and education, working closely with local veterinary professionals, community animal health workers, and farmers. By providing training and resources, we empower communities to take proactive steps in managing their animal health, which in turn safeguards their own health and supports environmental sustainability. These educational programs are pivotal in promoting a One Health perspective, as they help communities understand the intricate connections between their actions, animal health, and the broader ecosystem.

VWB's projects also extend to addressing environmental health, recognizing that a healthy environment is crucial for the health of both animals and humans. Our initiatives include promoting sustainable farming practices and advocating for wildlife conservation, which are essential for maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem health. These efforts reflect our commitment to the One Health approach by acknowledging that a healthy environment is foundational to the well-being of all living beings.

PHOTO: VWB staff gathered at the November 2023 team retreat held in Ottawa, ON. Charmaine (and her dog, Zoie) in the front row, second from right.

Overall, our work at VWB embodies the One Health concept through a multifaceted strategy that includes direct health interventions, capacity building, education, and environmental stewardship. Each project and initiative we undertake is designed to improve the health and well-being of animals, people, and the environment, demonstrating our holistic and integrated approach to health and sustainability.

Q: In your opinion, why is it important for organizations like VWB to prioritize the health and well-being of both animals and people globally?

A: Our organization's mission reflects a deep understanding that the health of animals, people, and the environment are inextricably linked. Here are several reasons why this holistic approach is vital:

  • Public Health and Disease Prevention: Many emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning they can be transmitted from animals to humans. By improving animal health, we directly contribute to preventing the spread of these diseases, thereby protecting community health. This approach is essential in preventing outbreaks and pandemics, which can have devastating effects on human populations, especially in vulnerable communities.
  • Nutritional Security: In many communities around the world, animals play a crucial role in nutrition through the provision of milk, meat, and eggs. By ensuring the health and well-being of animals, we also support food security and nutritional outcomes for people. This is particularly important for women and children, who are often the most vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies.
  • Economic Stability: For countless families and communities, animals represent a critical source of income and economic stability. Healthy animals mean productive animals, which can dramatically impact a family's ability to provide for themselves, access education, and invest in their futures. This economic stability is particularly empowering for women, who may rely on livestock as a primary means of participating in the economy.
  • Environmental Sustainability: The health of animals is deeply connected to the health of our environment. Practices that promote animal well-being often encourage sustainable agricultural and livestock management practices, which can preserve biodiversity, protect ecosystems, and ensure the long-term viability of the planet for future generations.
  • Empowering Women in Communities: In many parts of the world, women are primary caregivers for both family members and livestock. By focusing on improving animal and human health, organizations like VWB empower women by providing them with the knowledge, resources, and skills needed to care for their animals and families effectively. This empowerment leads to stronger, healthier communities and promotes gender equality.

In short, the work of Veterinarians Without Borders is not just about animal health; it's about creating a world where the health of all beings is recognized as interdependent. By prioritizing the well-being of animals and people, we are taking essential steps towards a more sustainable, equitable, and healthy planet for everyone.

Q: Can you share a success story or memorable experience from your work with VWB?

A: One particularly memorable experience that stands out involves our efforts in Ukraine, which highlights both the resilience of these communities and the critical role of animal welfare in humanitarian crises. In Ukraine, amidst the turmoil and challenges, our team was confronted with the urgent need for animal care and relief. Recognizing the deep bond between people and their animals, and understanding that this bond is even more critical during times of crisis, we launched an initiative aimed at providing immediate relief to over 200,000 animals. This effort was not just about animal welfare; it was about supporting the entire community—recognizing that the health and well-being of animals directly affect the health and well-being of people.

Our approach was multifaceted. We provided veterinary care, including vaccinations, treatments for injuries and illnesses, and essential nutrition support to animals that were in dire need. This immediate intervention not only saved the lives of countless animals but also safeguarded the communities from potential zoonotic diseases, which could have compounded the already dire humanitarian situation.

PHOTO: Ukrainian veterinary team, providing care.

The impact of this initiative was profound. Not only did we manage to protect and save a significant number of animals, but we also provided a sense of normalcy and hope to the people affected by the crisis. For many, these animals were not just livestock or pets; they were family members, sources of income, and integral to their way of life. By ensuring the welfare of these animals, we were able to alleviate some of the burdens faced by the people of Ukraine, offering them the strength to focus on rebuilding their lives and communities.

This experience in Ukraine is a powerful testament to the importance of our work at Veterinarians Without Borders. It illustrates the interconnectedness of animal and human health and well-being, especially in times of crisis. Our efforts went beyond immediate relief; they laid the groundwork for long-term recovery and resilience in these communities.

On International Women's Day, this story is especially significant because it showcases the strength and resilience of women in these communities. Women, often at the forefront of caring for family and animals, played a crucial role in the recovery process. Our work in Ukraine not only supported animal welfare but also empowered women, enabling them to take active roles in their communities' recovery and resilience-building efforts.

Q: What is the role women in driving positive change within community-centered animal health systems?

A: Women, especially those in rural and underserved communities, are often at the forefront of interacting with the environment and managing animal health, making them essential stakeholders in the One Health approach. Their roles range from caregivers to livestock managers, and they are often the first to notice changes in animal health, which can be early indicators of potential zoonotic disease outbreaks or environmental health issues.

In many parts of the world, women are the primary caretakers of livestock, playing a crucial role in the economic well-being of their families and communities. This position gives them unique insights into the health of animals and the surrounding ecosystem. However, despite their critical contributions, women frequently face barriers to full participation in animal health and environmental management discussions and decision-making processes.

Empowering women within these domains is not just about equity; it's about enhancing the effectiveness of One Health initiatives. Women bring diverse perspectives, knowledge, and skills that are essential for the holistic understanding and management of health risks at the human-animal-ecosystem interface. Their involvement ensures that interventions are more comprehensive, culturally relevant, and sustainable.

PHOTO: Through our AGROW program, farmers like San Davy in Cambodia (right) receive training in agriculture and cricket farming, which they pass on to other women in their village.

Moreover, by investing in women's education, training, and participation in science, public health, and veterinary medicine, we can build more resilient health systems. Educating women and girls in these fields contributes to a more diverse and skilled workforce capable of addressing complex health challenges through innovative solutions.

On this International Women's Week, it is crucial to commit to removing the barriers that prevent women from fully participating in One Health and community-centered animal health systems. This includes addressing gender disparities in education, providing platforms for women's voices in policy-making, and ensuring equitable access to resources and opportunities.

The inclusion of women in One Health is not just a moral imperative; it's a strategic one. Their contributions can drive more effective, sustainable, and equitable health outcomes for all. As we move forward, let's ensure that women are not only included but are leading in the design, implementation, and evaluation of One Health initiatives. Their leadership and participation are critical to achieving the holistic, collaborative approach required to address the complex health challenges of our time.

Q: What challenges have you faced as a woman working in the field of veterinary medicine and global health, and how have you overcome them?

A: Navigating these sectors as a woman has presented its unique set of challenges. Reflecting on my journey, several key obstacles and the strategies I've employed to overcome them come to mind, especially pertinent on International Women's Day.

  • Gender Bias and Stereotyping: One of the most pervasive challenges has been confronting gender bias and stereotypes. There's a lingering perception in some quarters that certain roles, especially leadership positions within science and global health, are not suited for women. Overcoming this required a twofold approach: excellence in my work and active engagement in mentorship. Demonstrating expertise and leadership through results has been crucial. Additionally, by mentoring young women entering the field, I've helped to build a supportive community that challenges these stereotypes and fosters a more inclusive environment.
  • Work-Life Balance: Like many professionals, but perhaps more acutely as a woman, balancing the demands of a high-stakes career with personal and family responsibilities has been challenging. The key to managing this has been to prioritize ruthlessly, delegate when possible, and most importantly, establish a strong support network both professionally and personally. Embracing flexibility and understanding that it's okay to seek help has been instrumental in navigating this balance.
  • Access to Leadership Roles: Ascending to leadership roles within veterinary medicine and global health can be daunting, given the historical male dominance in these fields. To address this, I've focused on building a robust professional network and seeking out mentors and sponsors who have provided guidance, opportunities, and advocacy on my behalf. Leadership development programs and continuous learning have also been pivotal in preparing me for executive responsibilities and making my candidacy for leadership positions undeniable.
  • Navigating Isolation: In many instances, being one of the few women in high-level meetings or discussions can feel isolating. To combat this, I've made it a priority to connect with other women leaders both within and outside my field. These relationships have provided a sense of solidarity, as well as a forum for sharing experiences and strategies for overcoming similar challenges.

Overall, the overarching lesson has been the importance of resilience, community, and mentorship. I also recognize that there is a critical need for continued efforts to address gender disparities and to empower women in all professional fields, especially in science and global health.

Q: How does VWB ensure that its programs are inclusive and equitable, particularly in the communities it serves?

A: VWB is deeply committed to ensuring that our programs are inclusive and equitable. We understand that to effectively serve communities, we must recognize and address the diverse needs of all members, especially considering the unique challenges faced by women and underrepresented groups in accessing veterinary services and animal health care. Our approach is multifaceted, focusing on community engagement, capacity building, and the promotion of gender equality.

One of the ways we ensure inclusivity is through our participatory approach in program design and implementation. We engage with communities directly to understand their specific needs and challenges, ensuring that our interventions are culturally sensitive and tailored to benefit everyone, including women, youth, and marginalized populations. This approach is evident in our projects across various countries, where we work closely with local partners to enhance the accessibility of veterinary services and animal health knowledge.

For instance, in our projects in East Africa, we’ve placed a strong emphasis on empowering women, who are often the primary caregivers of livestock but may have limited access to resources and training. We’ve initiated programs that provide veterinary training and animal health knowledge to women, enabling them to improve livestock management and increase their households’ resilience to economic and environmental challenges. These initiatives not only improve animal health and productivity but also empower women, enhancing their status within their communities and contributing to more equitable community development.

PHOTO: Through our VETS program, dairy farmers like Stella Kagando in Kenya receive training to boost their livestock health and production.

Additionally, VWB actively promotes diversity and gender equality within our organization. We strive to maintain a diverse team of professionals and volunteers, ensuring that our staff reflects the diversity of the communities we serve. This diversity enriches our perspectives and approaches to problem-solving, making our interventions more effective and sustainable.

We also implement policies and practices that support gender equality, such as gender-sensitive training for our staff and volunteers, to ensure that they are equipped to address gender dynamics in their work. Our commitment to gender equality extends to the leadership level, where we aim for gender balance and actively support the career advancement of women within the organization.

In summary, VWB’s commitment to inclusivity and equity is integral to our mission. Through community engagement, capacity building, and a focus on gender equality, we strive to ensure that our programs are accessible and beneficial to all, particularly the most vulnerable. Our initiatives aimed at promoting diversity and gender equality within our work are a testament to our belief that a more equitable world is possible through collective action and compassion.

Q: What role will organizations like VWB play in addressing emerging challenges related to animal, human, and environmental health?

A: One Health is a collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach, recognizing that the health of people is closely connected to the health of animals and our shared environment. It’s a concept that has never been more relevant, particularly as we navigate the challenges posed by emerging zoonotic diseases, climate change, and biodiversity loss. Organizations like Veterinarians Without Borders (VWB) are at the forefront of implementing the One Health approach, leveraging our unique position to address these intertwined challenges. We envision a future where our work not only continues but expands in scope and impact, driven by a few key principles:

  • Integrated Health Solutions: We see a future where interventions in animal health are designed with human and environmental health in mind, creating a ripple effect that benefits all. For example, by improving veterinary care and advocating for responsible livestock practices, we can enhance human nutrition, reduce zoonotic disease transmission, and promote sustainable farming practices that protect ecosystems.
  • Collaborative Networks: The complexity of One Health challenges requires unprecedented collaboration across sectors and disciplines. VWB aims to strengthen and expand its networks, working alongside governments, local communities, international organizations, and the private sector. By fostering dialogue and sharing knowledge, we can devise holistic strategies that address the root causes of health disparities.
  • Empowerment and Education: A critical aspect of our work involves empowering communities with the knowledge and tools they need to protect their health and the environment. This includes education on disease prevention, sustainable agriculture, and wildlife conservation. By investing in community-led initiatives, we ensure that One Health solutions are sustainable and culturally appropriate.
  • Innovation and Research: As we look to the future, the role of technology and research in One Health cannot be overstated. VWB is committed to supporting and participating in research that advances our understanding of the interconnectedness of health ecosystems. From digital health technologies to innovative disease surveillance systems, we believe that technology can amplify our impact.
  • Advocacy for Policy Change: Finally, the realization of a One Health world requires supportive policies and frameworks at both the national and international levels. VWB will continue to advocate for policies that recognize the interdependence of animal, human, and environmental health, pushing for investments in public health infrastructure, environmental conservation, and animal welfare.

In conclusion, the future of One Health is a promising but challenging journey, requiring collective action, resilience, and innovation. Organizations like Veterinarians Without Borders are pivotal in navigating this future, addressing emerging health threats at the nexus of animals, humans, and the environment.

Q: Finally, how can individuals support the mission of VWB and contribute to creating a healthier, more sustainable world for both people and animals?

A: Firstly, individuals can support our mission through donations. Financial contributions are crucial for us to continue our work, from veterinary care to community education programs. These donations directly impact our ability to respond to emergencies, implement long-term health projects, and support communities in need.

Volunteering is another powerful way to contribute. We rely on the expertise and passion of volunteers from various backgrounds, not just veterinary professionals. Whether it's through fieldwork or remote support, volunteers play a vital role in our projects, helping us to achieve our goals and expand our reach.

PHOTO: VETS volunteers on placement in Ghana, July 2023. Learn more about the diverse volunteer opportunities available through our VETS program.

Awareness and advocacy are equally important. By raising awareness about the connection between animal health, human health, and environmental sustainability, individuals can advocate for policies and practices that support this integrative approach. Sharing our stories, projects, and the importance of One Health can inspire others to take action and support our mission.

However you choose to participate in our mission, on International Women's Day, it's particularly important to emphasize that our projects support women in agriculture and veterinary science. So, by supporting VWB, you are directly contributing to gender equality and the empowerment of women in the communities where we work. This not only helps in creating a more sustainable world but also ensures that women have equal opportunities to thrive in these fields.

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  • I have seen first-hand the benefits of capacity building and gender empowerment for smallholder livestock farmers, and stakeholders in the livestock sector.
    - Dr. Shauna Richards

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