SEATTLE, Washington — In Kenya, only 48% of girls are enrolled in secondary school, and as a result, many women fall into early marriages and pregnancies. This is especially true of those in poverty without access to education. However, one school in Kenya is fighting back. Daraja Academy is an all-girls boarding school in Nanyuki, Kenya, where exceptional students from impoverished backgrounds get a high school education paid for in time spent giving back to their communities. The required 120 service hours not only pay for the girls’ schooling but teach the girls that they have the power to become agents of positive change in their communities.
After spending time in Kenya in 2006, Jenni Doherty and her husband, Jason Doherty, the founders of Daraja Academy, realized that girls were being left behind.
In 2015, out of 1,292,695 children not in school in Kenya, girls accounted for 55%, according to a UNICEF report. The report states, “In some communities, girls may fear losing their ‘marriageability’ by entering secondary school, and face risks of sexual abuse.” But, many girls assert that their education has led to greater successes in life.
UNICEF lists heavy domestic workloads, adolescent marriage and pregnancies, as well as negative societal attitudes toward girls’ education, as barriers to education for girls in Kenya. Although the Marriage Act of 2014 makes marriage illegal for those under 18 years old, child marriage is a practice that is accepted in many Kenyan communities.
Although education is widely regarded as an important part of breaking poverty cycles, girls living in poverty in Kenya are unlikely to attain even a secondary level education because of these barriers to education. In response to these realities, the Dohertys created Daraja as a place where girls from impoverished backgrounds could live, learn and thrive.
From Daraja to Higher Education
“Every girl deserves the education she needs to make her life and her family’s life and her community better,” Jenni Doherty told The Borgen Project in an interview. “They deserve that.”
Daraja Academy accepted its first cohort of students in 2009. According to the website, the goal is for each girl to gain a high enough score on her Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination to go on to higher education.
According to Doherty, Daraja has a 91% transition rate to higher education. Out of 208 graduates, seven have studied abroad in the past eight years. Another eight girls have scholarships to go to universities in the United States, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Mauritius.
Out of 300 applicants per year, only one in every ten girls gets accepted to Daraja. These girls are selected based on financial need, leadership capacity and academic scores.
The academy is meant to give girls who have no other means of going to school a place to go. To give them that means, Daraja’s tuition is paid in the form of a commitment from each girl of 30 service hours per year.
An Academy of Leaders
When Leila Ali Ibrahim began schooling at Daraja, her mother had an 8th grade level of education. She had dropped out of school to have Ibrahim and was never able to go back. After graduating from Daraja and getting through college, Ibrahim began paying for her mother to go back to school, extending the sphere of knowledge and progress.
Ibrahim’s journey is one familiar to those working at Daraja who see this kind of transformation occur every day, where girls partake in a transfer of knowledge that positively impacts those around them.
“It fascinates me how far-reaching girls’ education is,” Doherty says. “It truly is this ripple effect that is not linear at all, by any means.”
At Daraja, students learn leadership skills and the importance of giving back. Through the Women of Integrity, Strength and Hope (W.I.S.H.) program and their community service, the girls grow into their leadership potential and become agents of change.
“We are selecting girls who are in this very difficult area of poverty,” Doherty said, “but who have got strong leadership potential. Because who better to figure out how to change their community than girls who come from it.”
The W.I.S.H. program is taught all four years. The program’s curriculum includes topics such as self-esteem, identity, how to be a leader and peacebuilder and how to be an agent of change.
Daraja Academy has a proven track record of success with 37% of graduates holding formal leadership positions and 80% remaining engaged in community service.
Pivoting to Aid Families During COVID-19
As calls from distressed families rolled in with concerns about running out of food, the campus pivoted to function as a community center, helping provide for those in need during COVID-19. To stay in contact with students and continue online schooling, Daraja Academy bought smartphones for all its students.
Daraja staff then began wellness checks with the girls every two weeks, ensuring that girls were receiving three meals a day, still learning and receiving needed support if a family member contracted COVID-19.
In July 2020, education officials announced that the academic year would be canceled and all students would need to repeat the grade. The move was meant to avoid creating educational access inequalities for those who do not have access to remote learning devices to continue with school in Kenya.
Although the girls at Daraja now have smartphones at home, many of them lack consistent access to electricity and data. So, even with the provisions, there are typically one to two girls per day that are not able to make it to class.
Victoria Gichuhi, principal of Daraja, said in an interview with The Borgen Project that she thought the repeat year was a fair solution for everyone in the country.
When asked by The Borgen Project if a repeat year would cause her problems, Sharon Lavin, an 18-year-old senior at Daraja, said, “No. I take this as a chance and opportunity.” Lavin explained that the repeat year would give her a chance to review more before she takes the KCSE and goes to university to become a civil engineer.
The Silver Lining During COVID-19
For the Daraja families, Doherty sees the time the girls spend at home as a silver lining because the girls can pass what they have learned on to their families.
Before the girls left, Gichuhi sat down with the entire school and tasked the girls with teaching their families how COVID-19 is contracted, how to prevent it and how to properly wash hands, highlighting the importance of girls’ education and the impact it has on a community.
– Olivia du Bois