Women of Integrity, Strength and Hope: Kenya’s WISH Curriculum

Dear GlobalEd Readers,

Recently, University of San Diego Kroc School of Peace Studies graduate assistant Riley Pinto, had an opportunity to interview Jenni Dougherty a co-founder of Daraja Academy in Kenya. This is an amazingly successful secondary school for girls that has a special ‘empowerment’ curriculum that we wanted to share with GlobalEd readers.  Here is Riley’s interview with Jenni.

How it all started: “Kenya Picked Us”

As we are headed into our 15th school year and I look back on where we began, I think Jason and I were two stubborn idealists who thought we could do anything and that we could change the world. We learned very quickly, as you should learn when you do development work, to ask the people that you want to work with a lot of questions. The question that we kept asking is what are the needs in Kenya? After talking with various people, we kept hearing that girls’ education was the biggest need in several different counties within Kenya. So that is when we decided to start a boarding school for young girls to provide her with both academic curriculum and to women empowerment through leadership.

Daraja Co-Founders: Jenni & Jason Dougherty

When Daraja started in 2009, only 50% of girls were progressing from 8th grade to 9th grade and in the rural areas only 30% of girls. This is because the young women and their families cannot afford to pay for school after this point. Many young women faced early marriage and pregnancies, and were unlikely to attract the professional opportunities that enable economic self-sufficiency https://daraja.org/our-story/. Learning about these statistics was very formative for Jason and me to understand that education isn’t free across the world like it is here in the US. I am the first woman in my family to graduate from university and I was shocked to find out that young girls’ education stops after 8th grade. Girls’ education is the solution to climate change, to women’s rights, to human rights to equality. It is the magic elixir that everyone’s looking for to make the world a better place.

What is the W.I.S.H. Curriculum?

The Women of Integrity, Strength, and Hope (W.I.S.H.) program helps girls understand who they are and that they have value. It helps them see themselves as peacebuilders and activists that can actually make change happen. The girls that first start the program typically don’t look you in the eye, they’re very shy, and they have limited practice using their voice because their whole lives they’ve been told to be seen and not heard. WISH is taught every week for four years that the girls are in school. In Form 1 [9th grade], we teach all about identity and then Form 2 focuses on who the girl is, in relation to the world. She understands her body, she understands who she wants to become. Form 3 is all about peacebuilding, leadership, and conflict resolution skills and then in Form 4 we teach the girls how to be an activist and know what their human rights are.

Executive Director Victoria Gichuhi

Our theory of change finds that if you give a girl the skills, the opportunity the awareness and the ability to practice being a changemaker, she’ll be empowered to reduce conflict and poverty in her, life her family, and her community. We also provide four-year scholarships for every student and they pay it forward as they go back home and they do community service. The W.I.S.H. curriculum started because every single girl who came to our campus had really strong integrity, strength, or had a palpable hope for the future. We began discussing with the teachers about the needs of the girls at the moment and then we would prepare a lesson based on those needs. Victoria Gichuhi and I (the school principal) would share the lesson responsibilities and make the lessons interactive. Over time the themes would change within the general scope of what we would teach each year to make sure each girl is ready to move on to the next Form.

What makes Daraja girls unique?

Daraja girls are seen in their communities as leaders. Many people mistake Daraja girls as college students rather than secondary school students because of the way they hold themselves. From the time they walk in the door there’s already an inbuilt mentorship program when they walk in to help them deal with the trauma that they have. The first thing that we do when a girl comes to our campus is to establish their “family trees” within the school. Traditionally in other high schools in Kenya, there is a hazing process, but that does not happen at Daraja. A family is created in which a Form 2 girl is a big sister to a Form 1 girl, the Form 3 is the “auntie”, and the Form 4 is the Shosh, which is grandma in Swahili. Daraja girls and Kenyan women are very strong and I’m so impressed by their ability to continue to overcome the obstacles they face. A majority of Daraja girls come from homes where they have experienced trauma, poverty, death of their parents and/or sexual abuse living in homes without running water, electricity. If someone in the United States experienced that they would be a total mess without the counseling support without the government structural support that the women in Kenya do not have access to.

Daraja girls will have higher self-efficacy, they will stay in school and there will be fewer pregnancies. We are currently tracking all of these data metrics to show that these girls will be able to advocate for their rights and stay in school because they can argue for themselves. Daraja girls will also choose to use condoms instead of trying to get pregnant or accidentally getting pregnant, and we are tracking these outcomes. It is really exciting to see the changes that are happening for Daraja girls who are becoming strong Kenyan women. These women continue to go on and have this amazing fortitude and I love the Kenyan women they’re turning into.

W.I.S.H. Program in the Public School System

In addition to Daraja Academy, WISH is currently being taught in 6 public high schools in Laikipia County, reaching 690 girls each year. Daraja’s vision is to expand this WISH curriculum to over 5,000 girls by 2025. The success of Daraja girls has been seen throughout Kenya. When Daraja girls graduate, they end up contributing and being leaders in their communities. The public-school systems began asking us why our girls were different and expressed interest in incorporating the W.I.S.H. program in their schools. I recently had the opportunity to observe one of the W.I.S.H. classes in a public school that began with the curriculum four months ago.  I was amazed with how well the Form 1s were doing. They were engaged, they were raising their hands, and they had created a rapport with the trainer and the facilitator. This classroom was the closest thing I’d seen to a Daraja girl in Kenya. The students are encouraging each other, telling one another “Don’t forget your integrity!” There’s this whole language around WISH right now that’s giving them a language of encouragement of each other.

COVID’s Impact

At the beginning of the pandemic in Kenya, the schools shut down for nine months. When the schools opened back up, the teacher basically had to condense two school years into one calendar year. All teachers across the country felt pressed to get the information across to the students in such a short amount of time.  In 2022, we launched the W.I.S.H. program in the public schools. However, it was a very short year and the facilitators who are also school teachers were pulled in a dozen directions just trying to get the curriculum across. Our trainers ended up teaching more students than they traditionally would. While I know our facilitators have the skills needed to teach these students, I feel that some of them did not have the chance to practice that we’d hoped for by this point. Fast forward to almost 2023, the schools are almost back to a normal pace. We are currently teaching the W.I.S.H. program in seven public schools and three of these schools are mixed boys and girls.

I think that it is normal to feel stressed, given the circumstances, but there has only been enthusiasm for the program in the public schools. We are now working closely with the Ministry of Education and we are currently approved to teach it (blank county), but we need higher government approval to move on to the next phase of our work. While it is still a work in progress, everyone in our county is thrilled and we will hopefully be doubling our students to teach Form 1 and Form 2 at all seven schools and work with more classes next year.

What is the most rewarding aspect of the curriculum for you?

Seeing the change that happens in a girl when she goes from a young girl to a young woman. The fact that I have even the tiniest role in that I think that’s the reason why I continue to do what I do and have for 15 years. Some days are not easy, but what keeps me going through the hard days is the change that we see in these young women and I know that the wish program. I really depended on the women who wrote it but I can be a mouthpiece for them and I think that that is very rewarding as well to communicate how important this curriculum is and more girls need access to it. The Daraja girls said the WISH program is the heart of Daraja… when you ask a Daraja graduate what was the most transformative program at Daraja they say it is WISH!

We hope you have enjoyed learning about the WISH curriculum. If you want to learn more, reach out to us and we can connect you with Daraja staff and with other resources for you to learn about the details of this amazing curriculum.

Thanks for reading!

Riley and Paula

meet: Paula A. Cordeiro