In a rural region of Kenya, where only about 7 percent of all girls finish high school, 32 girls graduated in June as the fifth graduating class of a secondary school.

The school? A groundbreaking program jump-started by Duke and supported by DukeEngage.

WISER, initiated as the Women’s Institute of Secondary Education and Research and now goes by the name WISER, is an organization that aims to empower underprivileged girls by providing quality secondary education and essential resources. The WISER Girls Secondary School is based in Muhuru Bay, a small town in western Kenya. 

WISER takes a holistic approach to address social issues in Muhuru Bay, making it unique among similar non-governmental organizations, said Zachary Fowler, Trinity '16 and managing director of programs at WISER.

“When you are working with very little resources in a very remote part of a country, it is easy to do basic service provision—not easy, but easier,” Fowler said. “It is far more challenging to construct a system, an environment, where girls feel empowered, safe, healthy and educated."

WISER provides a four-year boarding school education for students, including health education, science, technology, engineering and math classes. Students also receive other resources ranging from clothes, books and safe housing to leadership training, career counseling and academic tutoring. 

To help launch this project, Duke provided initial funding in 2007—more than $300,000—to purchase land and build the infrastructure for the school in Kenya. WISER enrolled its first class of girls in 2010.

All students at WISER receive financial support for their education through WISER donors and funding partners, including the Segal Family Foundation, Social Initiative and Johnson & Johnson, among others. 

Sherryl Broverman, associate professor of the practice in biology and global health, was a co-founder of the school. Broverman’s research focuses on HIV intervention. Before the launch of WISER, she partnered with universities in Kenya to study how to educate adolescent girls to reduce HIV risks.

“It has been shown that educating girls is one of the most powerful HIV reduction programs,” Broverman said.

In Kenya, girls often engage in transactional sex in exchange for life necessities such as sanitary pads and money to pay for school fees, Broverman explained. As a result, many of them drop out of school due to early pregnancy.

Girls also undergo discrimination in their family because they are required to do housework or maintain the family so that their brothers are able to go to school, Broverman said, so they often lack the time, energy and resources to study.

According to preliminary research, more than 50 percent of all sexually active adolescent girls in the region have been involved in transactional sex at some point, Fowler noted. And the region is projected to have an HIV-prevalence rate as high as 38 percent.

“When you have half of the adolescent girls willing to trade sex for money to stay in school and more than one in three people HIV positive, you get a situation where girls are literally willing to risk their lives to stay in school,” Fowler said.

Research shows that finishing high school will reduce the chances of HIV infection by 50 percent. Since 2010, WISER has had a 100-percent graduation rate, and no student has dropped out despite a 75-percent dropout rate in neighboring schools, in which 51 percent is due to early pregnancy. 

WISER is also different from other groups because the majority of its staff are local, Fowler added.

“Having a local leadership from the beginning is essential to WISER’s success," he said.

For example, WISER principal Dorcas Oyugi is a recognized educator in Kenya, and she decided to lead WISER in a rural region because she believes that the girls deserve more.

Many of the staff members at the school grew up as girls in rural Kenya, so they better understand the experiences of the WISER girls, Fowler noted. They are able to address the social challenges these girls are going through in a more personal and empathetic way.

Fowler participated in 2014 in DukeEngage in Kenya, a collaborative program between WISER and DukeEngage. Every year, a group of Duke students stay in Muhuru Bay for two months to contribute to the projects on the campus and in the local community. 

DukeEngage students are an additional resource for the WISER girls and help them reach out to a wider range of people, Fowler said. 

This year, for example, Duke students have helped the WISER girls enhance a local sexual and reproductive health outreach program, during which the WISER girls spread knowledge about sexual and reproductive health to young people in the community, Fowler noted. The program has been under operation since before those Duke students arrived. 

“The program has already reached 1,000 students this year alone and is very quickly growing,” Fowler said.

By quizzing and discussing these issues with the WISER girls, DukeEngage students helped strengthen their knowledge and better explain themselves during sessions with local students, he added. 

“One of the advantages of the WISER-DukeEngage program is that it does not supplant the local leaders, does not remove anyone and also does not start off programs that are not sustainable later on,” Fowler said. “Instead, it builds on and increases the capacity of what WISER and what the community leaders are already doing.”

WISER has recently opened its second university-quality science lab, Fowler noted. Its computer lab is now equipped with Internet connection, which enables distance education. Solar power panels have also been installed on campus this past quarter, powering the classrooms at night. 

The WISER community programs will expand as well. The range of people who now receive clean water provisions from WISER will increase from 5,000 to about 25,000 by this fall. There will also be more and larger community health outreach programs.

The school is growing dramatically, Broverman said.

Leah Catotti, Trinity '15 and managing director of operations and strategy at WISER, said she was first involved with WISER through DukeEngage. 

Majoring in global health and cultural anthropology, Catotti said DukeEngage in Kenya enabled her to study gender issues, global health and disparity. But what made her decide to go back and become a staff member was her experience with the WISER girls. 

“[This program] makes you come back with a new perspective on Duke, on the world and on the role of individuals in helping one another," Catotti said.