“When things go bad, the first crop you harvest are the girls.”
“That’s how my Kenyan friend Eddie responded when I asked him if all the stores I had heard were true,” related Dr. Sherryl Broverman, Duke professor of biology and co-founder of the Women’s Institute of Secondary Education and Research (WISER) NGO. She still remembers how he pointed to girls out the window of the car as he answered her.
Muhuru Bay, where this exchange took place, is a rural village on the shores of Lake Victoria in Western Kenya. The community has the highest rates of HIV infection, infant mortality and malaria in the country. It also has the largest number of AIDS orphans. The situation there is especially dire for women and girls.
As in many developing countries, women in Muhuru Bay often have no property or income of their own and little control over their family’s purse strings. A severe under-valuation of girls and their well-being often results in the misallocation of scarce resources to males. Girls are left without money for education or personal care items like soap and sanitary pads.
To obtain money to pay for these items, girls are often forced to leverage their bodies. They may make about $1.25 gathering firewood for an entire afternoon, but 10 minutes of sex could earn them $3.00. For many girls who are also balancing schoolwork and house work, resorting to transactional sex makes economic sense.
In some schools, girls may be forced to have sex with their male teachers to obtain funding for school or supplies. Furthermore, in an economy driven by a male-dominated fishing market, women and girls turn to wealthy fishermen for this source of income. Often these men are infected with HIV at a much higher rate than the general population, having engaged in similar relations with other women around the lake.
This dynamic forces girls as young as 12 to choose between dropping out of school due to lack of fees—thereby consigning themselves to early marriage and pregnancy—or obtaining this funding at the risk of HIV infection. What would you do?
Given these realities, when the WISER NGO first began working with the Muhuru Bay community in 2007, girls were significantly underrepresented in schools. Only 5 percent were enrolled in secondary school, and none had ever qualified for college. These statistics mirror a global trend, with Human Rights Watch reporting that girls constitute 70 percent of the world’s out-of-school youth.
These gender disparities in education are unsettling from a human rights perspective. According to the UN Convention on Discrimination against Women, both genders should have equal access to education.
These disparities also have important implications for development. The World Bank reports that an extra year of secondary school boosts girls’ future wages by 15 to 25 percent. It has also been found that women and girls reinvest 90 percent of their earned wages into their families, with men investing only 30 to 40 percent. Lawrence Summers, former World Bank chief economist, has also remarked, “Investment in girls’ education may well be the highest return investment available in the developing world.”
The WISER NGO was founded in response to these issues in Muhuru Bay. In 2010, the NGO partnered with the community to open the WISER School, a Kenyan-run boarding high school for girls. Each year, an incoming class of 30 girls receives four-year full scholarships to WISER.
In support of the secondary school, the WISER NGO also runs WISERBridge, a program that works with eighth grade students to improve their test scores on national high school entrance exams. Through WISERBridge, more students, and especially more girls, have passed these exams and qualified for high school. WISER has also helped to introduce a number of public health initiatives into the community.
At Duke, we are proud to support the work of the WISER NGO. As a student organization, we work to maintain a close relationship between the girls at the WISER school and Duke students. We are committed to raising money for girls’ scholarships and educating the Duke and Durham communities about the importance of girls’ education from both a development and human rights perspective.
For more information about WISER and the challenges facing women and girls in Muhuru Bay, please visit www.wisergirls.org.
For more information on the work Duke’s WISER student group is doing in support of the NGO, visit www.facebook.com/WISERDuke.
This week WISER will be hosting Wednesday night Jazz at the Mary Lou in celebration of the newest class of WISER students, who began their first day of school this month. On Thursday, WISER will also host a fundraiser at Panda Express between 4:30 and 8:30 p.m. Come show your support and join the tradition.
Live. Learn. Be. WISER.
Caitlin Johnson, Trinity ’12, is the former co-president and Katy Falletta, Trinity ’13, is the current president of WISER student group. This column is the sixth installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written by dPS members addressing civic service and engagement at Duke. Follow dPS on Twitter @dukePS