In 2013, I was contacted by an organisation called WISER to help tell their incredible story of empowering girls in a very difficult, patriarchal society in rural Kenya.
I went to the WISER campus in Muhuru Bay and spent 4 days on campus, filming the lives of the girls, interviewing them, seeing their home lives and learning more about this phenomenal charity and the teachers and people behind it. When one of the girls told me they realise now they are "worth more than five cows" I was gobsmacked. I had to get the word out.
In a nutshell, WISER is a haven for girls in that area. In Muhuru Bay, poverty is very extreme. There is no real economic activity, except for fishing as it lies right on the banks of lake Victoria. But this is both a blessing and a curse: it provides one of the only steady sources of food, but as most people do not have any economic income, and therefore no money to even buy food, girls are forced to sell themselves for next to nothing to the fishermen just to survive. The statistics are shocking: 50% of sexually active 10-16 year old girls are forced to have transactional sex to get money for school, food or sanitary pads. This is also in an area where HIV/AIDS prevalence is a staggering 38%. But the girls have no choice. And it often leads to pregnancy or illness. Add on to this the huge cultural difficulties: the village is a very patriarchal society, where many husbands have several wives. Girls are not valued at all, and most of them will not go to school as families prefer to spend the little money they have to educate their sons only. Most girls will go to primary and that's it. Girls are then left with no options except begging for food, selling themselves, or the very common choice: early marriage. Many of the girls at WISER have been down these routes. Girls' worth are seen as their dowry – just a few cows or similar. So they will often marry older men when they are just young teens, then they get pregnant and drop out of school and the cycle begins again.
But then there was WISER (the Women's institute for Secondary Education and Research).
It is amazing. It is a boarding secondary school offering top quality education for very bright girls in the area, all for free. They receive applications every year and pick 30 girls from the local community who have passed their exams and have big potential but no means to get an education. Then they live at the WISER campus, a very nice, safe environment where they have dormitories and beds with mosquito nets (often the first time the girls have ever slept in a real bed) and four square meals a day, which is practically unheard of outside. Most of the time they would do well to have one or two, and even then it would be beyond basic and badly balanced.
They study a full curriculum and are very intelligent. When I arrived on campus, lessons were underway and I peeked in and took some shots. They were learning physics, chemistry and one class was learning about the history of Kenyan elections and politics in another room. Each girl had a story of such difficulty and yet they are flourishing so well and are spreading such important views amongst the society: that girls are equal, that they have a voice and that they WILL succeed. It was just so wonderful. The society is taking note, too – people respect the WISER girls and their views and starting to trickle to the general community. They are learning that educating girls is important. And furthermore, WISER has created competition in the area: girls are studying harder than ever to get in, seeing how it has benefitted the others. This is great as more girls are in school (a large part of it is WISER Bridge – the programme that is keeping primary schools and girls on track and transitioning to secondary education) and are working hard to change their future.
The teachers are also incredible: dedicated changemakers with the kinds of attitudes that Kenya needs. The male teachers were an inspiration, challenging patriarchal viewpoints. And they are so hardworking: most girls will request to stay in school even during the month break they have – as life is so much easier… and so the teachers will stay too and pass up any break they may have had as they also live in campus.
WISER also has a clean water programme/kiosk for the local community, a garden where the girls eat nutritious food and can sell it to people outside too. It has classes on HIV risk reduction, a reproductive health awareness programme, etc. The list is endless.
WISER has been running since 2010. The inaugural WISER graduation happened on 8th March 2014. The results? All 28 of the pioneering class passed their exams. 17 of these girls attained grades that qualify them for university, with 13 of these receiving immediate and full scholarships. Just WOW.
– More information and ways to support can be found on their website here: wisergirls.org
Filmmaker - Hollie Harrington