Interview with Uraidah Hassani by Inspirational Women Series
Uraidah Hassani is the Founder and Executive Director of The Women Worldwide Initiative, a New York-based programmatic non-profit organization with the mission to empower women and girls living in the poorest and most marginalized conditions to strengthen their agency and improve their well-being. She has designed, managed and evaluated programs that build the social, economic and health assets of vulnerable women and girls. Currently, she is supporting the World Bank’s Reimbursable Advisory Services portfolio, which contributes to achieving the Bank’s mission of poverty reduction and sustainable economic growth. Prior to that, Uraidah worked in Sri Lanka with local NGOs on peacebuilding initiatives, which led to her piece on the importance of investing in adolescent girls post-conflict to improve development outcomes. She received her Master of Science in Foreign Service from Georgetown University.
Can you tell us a bit more about your work as an Operations Policy & Quality Consultant with the World Bank?
As part of the Advisory Services and Analytics team at the World Bank, I manage the Reimbursable Advisory Services (RAS) Community of Practice, and support RAS outreach, training and reform. Through the RAS instrument, the World Bank provides clients – governments, state-owned enterprises, civil society organizations, and multilateral agencies – with customized technical assistance without a line of credit.
While having only recently started this position, I’m excited to gain broad exposure to strategic operations issues, to stay up to date with development innovations across sectors, and to develop a deeper understanding of the business of the Bank. My inclination is always to have my ear to the ground and get involved at the grassroots level to really understand the problems facing communities and their solutions. However, as an international development professional, I believe it is also important for me to understand how the largest influencers and conveners in the poverty reduction space operate. Understanding the two, hopefully, will allow me to be most effective in the small role I will play in ending poverty.
You also founded The Women Worldwide Initiative, a programmatic non-profit organization with the mission to empower marginalized women and girls to strengthen their agency and improve their well-being. What inspired you to found TWWI and what were the biggest challenges you faced when launching TWWI?
In 2011, the stark realities of poverty in Brownsville and East New York, Brooklyn ignited in me a desire to develop a solution that would interrupt the poverty cycle. Truthfully, I felt a deep responsibility to do something, and so I just started. I jumped right into the work, and let the work teach me. The biggest challenges were that I was 22-years-old at the time and had to teach myself how to start, incorporate and run a non-profit organization, I had no seed money, and I was working 12 hours a day at a school. I worked for my organization during every spare moment of every day. What was not difficult was getting buy in for the program from youth, schools and the community – the program was needed.
What are some of the key differences between TWWI’s small-scale development projects you launched internationally and the domestic programs?
Currently, the key difference is that we run the domestic programs, and provide support services to existing projects internationally. As we are based in New York, we are able to design, manage, implement, monitor and evaluate programs for women and girls in an effective and impactful way.
I designed and launched our flagship program, the Young Women Rock! Mentorship Program, in East New York, Brooklyn in 2012 where little to no leadership or personal development programs existed for girls. Now in its fifth year and operating in Brooklyn and the South Bronx, the program builds the social, emotional, health and economic assets of adolescent girls living the poorest and most marginalized conditions in New York City. By pairing young women living in poverty with mentors, and speaking to them during their formative years about issues of self-worth, identity, nutrition, sexual health, and aspirations, YWR! is able to have the highest impact in interrupting the poverty cycle. The evidence for life skills and mentoring programs for girls is being built by international development experts, and these findings are just as relevant in the domestic space. Much like girls in the developing world, girls living in poverty in the U.S. – particularly girls of color – are often forgotten or ignored. Yet we know that their empowerment has positive ripple effects for the rest of the society.
In regards to our international projects, we do not see a value in us remotely managing programs overseas, and believe those on the ground are better able to serve the community. However, what we do want to do is support underfunded grassroots efforts overseas, as many are overlooked by large donors. We have a rigorous selection process for projects we plan to support, and the organizations must be aligned with our mission.
For example, our small-scale development project, Sewing Futures in Azua, was in partnership with Casa Ana, a family care center in Azua, Dominican Republic. We supported Casa Ana with strategic guidance, materials and fundraising support for their project providing sewing training to increase the skills and income potential of undereducated female caretakers. Our Director of International Projects, Kimberly Andino, vetted the organization in person and facilitated the initial sewing trainings in Azua before handing it over to Casa Ana staff. The effort laid the foundation for a broader initiative to provide sewing skills training to young girls and boys, which not only kept them in safe spaces, but also taught them a marketable skill, which can be utilized as an income-generating vehicle.
Can you talk about your new initiative, Young Development Professionals for Women & Girls?
After graduating from a Master’s program, my friend and I noticed a gap in young professional networking groups in our field in D.C. — none of these groups focused specifically on working to empower and protect women and girls. We created Young Development Professionals for Women & Girls to foster the next generation of development leaders fighting for gender equality. Our goal is to build meaningful connections and learning opportunities for international development professionals at the early and mid stages of their career. We held a successful launch event in April, and going forward we aim to curate leadership and skills development opportunities every other month while also encouraging our members to attend development events throughout the District. Those interested in becoming a member can complete this form, and follow us on Facebook for the latest updates. Members are invited to our events and to join our LinkedIn group, which will serve as a platform to share job-related opportunities.
Previously, you also served as a Gender Consultant for Heroica Films Inc and a Business Development Graduate Intern at the Population Council. What were your most valuable takeaways from these experiences?
For me, these experiences reminded me of the reality that women and girls living in poverty – whether in the United States or in a developing country – face many similar challenges to their rights and opportunities. At the Population Council, I supported research that addresses key impediments to development including maternal mortality, unintended pregnancy, family planning, early marriage, HIV/AIDS, and gender-based violence. As a gender consultant for Heroica Films Inc., I worked on a curriculum that supplemented Kamala Lopez’s film, Equal Means Equal. The film, which sheds light on how women are treated in the United States using real-life stories and precedent-setting legal cases, makes a compelling argument for the urgency of ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment.
In your opinion, what are some of the biggest international development issues that uniquely affect women?
In my opinion, the two biggest challenges preventing women from advancing are gender-based violence, and barriers to education. Everyone should live a life free from fear and violence, and that’s currently not the case for a majority of women and girls around the world. 1 in 4 women will experience violence at least once during her lifetime, and healing from trauma is often left exclusively to the survivor. Violence is preventable, but it requires engaging men and boys, and changing the norms and systems that allow and often encourage violent behavior at the expense of victims/survivors. Pro Mundo is doing amazing work to transform harmful gender norms and unequal power dynamics by engaging men and boys in partnership with women and girls.
Another significant issue is girls’ education. There are currently around 62 million girls out of school around the world. Research and experience tells us that without education, girls are more likely to marry young, have children early, and spend their life in poverty. Some of the barriers girls face include the cost of education, poverty, violence at or on the way to school, distance to school, gender norms, and early marriage or pregnancy. Both formal education and non-formal education including sexual health education and life skills are critical opportunities for girls to reach their full potential.
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
It’s difficult for me to talk about one woman who has influenced me without talking about all the ones that have. In fact, I believe it’s this collective of women that surround me that has allowed me to fully believe in my own potential and ability. The women in my life that I think most readily of are the women in my family, in my friend groups, in my professional life, and in the sisterhood I’ve created through my organization. There is nothing more powerful than women affirming one another. The women in my life are not “yes women.” They are outspoken and strong willed, and will not be silent when they have a thought, opinion or idea to share. They challenge me in all the best ways, and are able to do so while still remaining enthusiastically in my corner. They are there when I fail, and they are there when I succeed, and the moments are sweeter because of them.
What are your favorite books, websites, films and resources related to international development and women’s issues?
- Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (which also has a great documentary to complement it)
- We Should All be Feminists (and A Feminist Manifestoin Fifteen Suggestions) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- What Works in Girls’ Education: Evidence for the World’s Best Investment by Gene B Sperling and Rebecca Winthrop
I love the documentary film, Girl Rising, which follows follows nine girls from Haiti, Nepal, Ethiopia, India, Egypt, Peru, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, and Afghanistan on their journey to education. I also enjoy Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s films, and PBS Frontline episodes.
To say up to date on women and girls’ empowerment issues in international development, I follow the following organizations closely: UN Women, Together for Girls, International Rescue Committee, Center for Global Development, Global Women’s Institute, and CARE.