Changing how a community values its girls
The sky is the limit for 18-year old Mercy Adhiambo Stephen from Muhuru Bay, Kenya. A graduate of the Women’s Institute of Secondary Education & Research (WISER), Mercy has been accepted at Pwani University in Mombasa, where she plans to study computer science and hopes to further her education in the United States.
Growing up in single parent home, with five siblings and a mother who was too sick to work, Mercy went to live with her uncle and attended free primary school. However, funding secondary school was far beyond his means and Mercy did not expect to continue her education. Until WISER came along, and gave her that opportunity.
WISER was founded in 2007 as a community-driven response to the gross gender inequality in access to quality health care, education and economic opportunity for girls in Muhuru Bay. Located about 350 kilometers from Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi, the Muhuru Bay region has the highest rates of AIDS orphans, malaria, and infant mortality in all of Kenya. Only 10% of girls went on to secondary and none ever qualified for university. Most of the girls dropped out of secondary school due to lack of fees, pregnancy, or marriage.
Using a holistic approach to education and empowerment, WISER provides full scholarship, including boarding, clothes, sanitary pads, books, healthy food, and medicine to 120 girls, the highest number of girls to ever attend secondary school in Muhuru Bay. About 30% of the girls attending WISER have been orphaned by AIDS.
Since 2010, Johnson & Johnson has supported WISER’s efforts by providing full scholarships for 30 girls each year and also donating reusable sanitary pads to at least 250 girls. WISER alumni also receive further support as they pursue their dreams beyond high school graduation.
Mercy’s friend and fellow WISER graduate Leah Night Sagia has big hopes for her future as well. Leah, also 18, has been accepted to Kibabii University where she plans to study agricultural economics and resource management, and eventually get her master’s degree.
Born into a polygamist family in Muhuru Bay, and the oldest of seven children, Leah had to help her mother take care of her siblings. Her father did not have a job and her mother supported their family by fetching water from the lake and selling it. As her family could not afford to send her to secondary school, Leah repeated Class 8 several times until WISER came to her rescue.
WISER is making dreams come true for Mercy and Leah and many more girls in Muhuru Bay. Mercy and Leah and fellow graduates of the 2014 class now join the pioneering class of 2013 who are chartering new territory and changing the expectations for girls from Muhuru Bay. All of them are the first girls from their families to attend secondary school.
“In a short span of six and a half years, 180 households have had their daughters attain secondary education at WISER,” says Dorcas A. Oyugi, school principal at WISER. “That is a huge impact. Previously those who managed to complete primary education dropped at that level.”
To date, 100% of WISER graduates have qualified for higher education. Between the two graduating classes, a record number of 32 girls have been accepted at universities, and another 28 girls are entering community colleges.
“WISER’s focus on the social empowerment of underprivileged girls through education and health is working magic in the community,” adds Dorcas. “This was not the case before WISER. We are beginning to see a shift in the thinking and perception of the community with regards to how they value their daughters.”
Dorcas is delighted by the transformation she sees in girls graduating from WISER who she says, “will never be the same again. They participate in decision-making, and are taking charge of their own destiny.”