Breaking Barriers and Building Bonds
GLIDE’s Karen Hanrahan reflects on the power and promise of women and girls
In celebration of International Women’s Day, I’d like to ask you what drives your own connection to GLIDE’s efforts on behalf of women and girls in the Tenderloin and beyond? Well, firstly, I was raised by a single mother, a strong woman and a role model who raised three children by herself and worked very hard to do that. I watched how hard it was in the 1970s to get divorced, to build a life that would take care of her children. Women of her generation had to break a lot of barriers.
When we talk about injustice, about inequality, what I have seen is that women and girls are still viewed as having less value. That was the case when I began working on human rights issues, and it continues to be the case in many places around the world. That for me was a calling, addressing this injustice and inequality. At the same time, I have had the extraordinary opportunity to form very close relationships with girls and young women in places from Afghanistan to Africa to the Middle East, and I have seen how courageous these girls and women can be—particularly if they are standing up for something they know they can be put in jail for or can bring great risk to them. But women and girls who make very courageous and positive changes in their community—it’s where real change can happen.
What’s the significance of International Women’s Day for you?
It reminds me of the power of women for positive change, in the U.S. and globally. We’ve learned, for example, that when you put money directly in the hands of women, their children live longer, their households do better, their communities do better. When women are in power in government, they tend to be agents for peace, rather than violent conflict. It’s a reminder of the power of women to make the world a better place. At the same time, the fact that we have only the one day is a reminder of how far we have to go. There are still too few women in senior positions in government, in the private sector, even in the public sector. There remain high levels of inequality. Women have the highest risk of being impoverished in the United States, actually. So we have a long way to go.
“… We all come into the world wanting dignity, respect and equality. I’ve seen incredible women, including young women and girls, pushing the boundaries of their circumstances, and pushing against the forces that are keeping them out of school or out of politics or forcing them into child marriages.”
When you look at the challenges facing women and girls in the Tenderloin, do you see things that are similar to those you saw in other parts of the world?
A lot of people think the United States has made a lot more progress than most other countries, that it’s some sort of beacon of equality for women. But the #MeToo movement has shown just how common and deep the discrimination and abuse faced by women here really is. It happens everywhere around the world. Again, it comes from a lack of valuing women for who they are, turning them instead into these objects over which men will try to exercise some kind of power.
The Tenderloin has reminded me of certain cities I’ve been in around the world because of the state of poverty and homelessness in San Francisco, but also because of the dramatic differences in wealth. One of the fastest growing groups among the most marginalized are women and particularly women of color. So that combination [of growing inequality and a disproportionate impact on women of color] is happening here and on a global level.
There’s another great common denominator among girls and women: We all come into the world wanting dignity, respect and equality. I’ve seen incredible women, including young women and girls, pushing the boundaries of their circumstances, and pushing against the forces that are keeping them out of school or out of politics or forcing them into child marriages. I think it comes down to that common human factor, wanting to be free and to have dignity.
“Overall, one of my objectives is to help GLIDE be a better place for women, as well as to grow our capacity to work with families.”
What about GLIDE’s work do you think is the most hopeful and relevant to women and girls today?
I can say that generally GLIDE provides a place for everyone, and welcomes everyone no matter their circumstances and treats them with dignity and respect. But in all honesty I also see that women don’t always feel comfortable in a very male-dominated space, in terms of coming in that front door. I’ve talked to women in the Women’s Center about this, for example. One of the places I want to push us to improve is in ensuring that GLIDE is a friendlier place for women and girls, and provides them with a supportive environment. Their needs are sometimes similar but also often quite different from the men. So this is part of what I want to do at GLIDE.
And from a practical perspective, investing in women and girls and families in the U.S. is one of the smartest investments we can make because it’s one of the best ways to actually break cycles of poverty or prevent poverty in the first place.
So one of my objectives is to grow our capacity to work with families. We do already provide a wonderful environment in our Family, Youth and Childcare Center to support families and to provide early childhood education. That support allows women to continue their own educations and to remain employed. I don’t think everyone truly understands the value of a safe, high-quality place for families to put their children. It means women in particular can get onto a more sustainable path out of poverty—and we’re really going to grow that work.
Karen Hanrahan is the President and CEO of GLIDE. She has 20 years of experience advancing human rights and building high-impact global initiatives around the world, most recently as a senior appointee in the Obama administration, where she served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. In a variety of roles throughout her life and career, including as a United Nations aid worker and the chief program officer for the Center for Reproductive Rights, Karen has brought creativity and innovation to intractable challenges in economic development, global health and international human rights.