When I looked into their eyes … a history of St. Elizabeth Secondary School for Girls

I realized I hadn’t written a blog that shares how all of this got started in the first place! For me, this experience has been going on for two years and many of the readers of this blog have been part of the journey with me over this time.  In an attempt to ensure everyone has proper context, I’d love to share the story with you.  If you’d prefer the video version, you can watch it here:  http://vimeo.com/29861914 – it’s 3 1/2 mins.

In September 2009, I had the opportunity to travel to Africa on vacation for 3 weeks.  At the end of my trip, I devoted four days to travel to West Pokot (250 miles north of Nairobi) because I wanted to experience first-hand the work World Vision does on the ground.   I had said to World Vision “you pick the country and the place and I’ll go there …” – so off we went to West Pokot to visit a water project World Vision was constructing that ultimately would bring clean water to over 60,000 people.  I visited the area for 4 days, seeing the water project and meeting a variety of community groups that World Vision provides support to.  On the last day of my visit and the last visit of that day, World Vision took me to a primary school educating over 700 children.  During this part of the visit, we visited a rescue center for girls on the property.   On the way, I asked “what are these girls being rescued from …?” not knowing that the answer to this question would alter my life. 

I met 35 young girls living in the Morphus rescue center.   And the answer to my question was sobering – these young girls (ages 8-13 at the time) had either fled their homes or had been rescued from abusive situations because they didn’t want to be subjected to the oppressive and brutal cultural practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and early marriage.  Here I was, a white woman from America surrounded by these young girls who were so incredibly brave and believed in the hope for a better life even in the absence of any evidence that one would exist for them.  I did not feel worthy to be standing on the same ground as these children. 

Morphus Rescue Center Girls

The primary school principal shared with me that once the girls would reach the 8th grade and graduate primary school, they would have no opportunity to continue their education.  The “closest” secondary school for girls was an impossible distance away. With no money for tuition or books, no family support, nor access to transportation, these young girls would effectively be left with no hope for a better life.   Their only alternative would be either get married at the young age of 13 (and likely undergo FGM, the practice they fled their homes for originally) or live as a single girl in a poor community (which could lead to a life of selling her body, rape and/or abuse – reference this video from The Girl Effect – it will blow your mind http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1e8xgF0JtVg .  

 When I looked into the eyes of these young girls, I saw two things:  the first was a fierce determination for a better life through education.  The second was the longing of a little girl to have someone validate that they indeed were important and loved.  I couldn’t, nor wouldn’t walk away. 

Talking with the girls

With the help of many people, we raised the initial $366,000 to build St. Elizabeth Secondary School for Girls.   The school has four classrooms, a dormitory, a twin laboratory to teach chemistry, biology and physics, a kitchen/dining hall and teacher housing. In addition, we’re installing a computer lab, – most of the girls have never seen a computer so imagine how their world will open!  There are 74 girls attending the school today, 21 from the rescue center who are old enough now to attend secondary school and 53 from the broader community.  In May, 2011 the school was commissioned, with Form 1 and 2 open today (think US equivalent of Grades 9 and 10), and Form 3 starting next month (January 2012) and Form 4 in January 2013 (US equivalent of Grades 11 and 12 respectively).  Operating at full capacity, the school will educate 200 girl-students. 

St. Elizabeth Secondary School for Girls!

There are two transformations here:  the first is that the girls from the FGM rescue center now and any who lives in the primary school rescue center in the future will have their secondary schooling completely paid for.  Now, their future is in their own hands and through education they will have a world of opportunity opened.  They have a safe place to grow up and learn and are coming to realize they are not second-class citizens or property, but valued and valuable human beings. The second is that an 53 additional girls from the community are attending the school.  This is amazing.  This means that their parents have chosen not to have them married in exchange for a dowry (sometimes up to 30-50 head of livestock) and are paying tuition to have their girls go to school.   The community is beginning to recognize that through education, they can grow and improve their standard of living.   I was present for the school commissioning ceremony and experienced the girls’ joy and saw the beginnings of this transformation.  All 74 girls are planning for what they would like to do when they grow up.  We heard vocations like a journalist, doctor, biologist, civil engineer … compare that to 24 months earlier where their only next step in life would be to get married by 13yrs of age and start having children.   If you would like to see the photos of that experience, they are posted on my Sky Drive HERE.  We also shot an eight minute video which you can watch HERE(the password is mdm).

The school opening celebration

The Kenyan government has a focus on teaching math and sciences in their secondary schools, therefore the school plan included a providing a twin laboratory that would teach chemistry, biology and physics.  However, there was no requirement for computer literacy.  I knew that, with the advent of the internet and reasonable bandwidth, children (and adults) anywhere in the world could have so many more doors of opportunity open to them if they had basic computer literacy.  I also knew that children gravitate to technology and some become quite good and pursue technology as a career passion – just like in the developed world.   We also discovered that Kenya Telecom had an ISDN line running through this community, so we decided to also provide a computer lab and education as part of this project and open the world to these girls.  The lab is totally outfitted with Microsoft software, using the Microsoft Multipoint Server.  This is perfect in rural areas in developing countries where reliable consistent power isn’t an option.  Microsoft Multipoint Server it’s engineered to use 80% less power than our standard on premise software.   I have even imagined that this could lead to some of the girls starting technology-related businesses in their own community (which is a very poor, agro-pastoral community today).  Imagine the improvement in the standard of living that can result now that technology is being made available to these girls!  

So that’s how this all started and is now leading to the Kenya Vulnerable Girls Education Project which will span across 5-7 new areas in the Western Rift Valley of Kenya – here’s a summary of the project:

Kenya Vulnerable Girls Education Project:  Based on the enormous success of the St. Elizabeth Girls Secondary School project, in combination with a clean water project that is transformational for the broader community, World Vision has decided to take the best practices from St. Elizabeth’s school project and create the broader Kenya Education Project for Vulnerable Girls, staring now.   This project will positively affect the lives of thousands of vulnerable girls in western Kenya, and accelerate the impact their lives can have on their broader community through education, sciences and technology.  Statistics: As recently as 2007, the female literacy rate in West Pokot was among the lowest in Kenya— less than 30 percent. 

Project Summary:  The Kenya Education Project for Vulnerable Girls primarily targets girls in western Kenya who are at risk of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Early Marriage (EM), which typically take place between the ages of 10 and 13 in certain Kenyan sub-cultures.  The project will be implemented in 5 to 7 World Vision Area Development Programs (ADPs) in the western Rift Valley region of Kenya.   School construction is a part of this project, and will address the needs both for primary and secondary schools (additions / expansions versus new construction).  In addition, computer labs now will be incorporated for the upcoming schools.  They will be designed as technology centers for the schools and the communities at a large.   There will be multiple ways the education project will help these vulnerable girls including mentoring, vocational training, community awareness raising (sensitizing people to the dangers and harm caused by FGM and EM, encouraging alternative rites of passage, promoting the long-term value of education, etc.), and community empowerment (capacity building focused on girls, parents, community partners, etc.).  

Holistic ApproachBecause WV’s overall mission is to tackle the causes of poverty, they implement projects in conjunction with other complementary projects in order to help transform an entire community over time.  In this case, the education project area will be in famine affected regions of Kenya so the other main priorities of the target areas are food security and access to safe water.  Therefore this project will be implemented alongside other projects that are focused on these two issues, which means that the beneficiaries of the education project will also benefit from increased food security and access to clean water.  


About margoday

Making a difference in people’s lives at home and internationally is central to who I am. I have been deeply involved in funding the building secondary schools for vulnerable girls in Kenya and took a one-year personal leave of absence from Microsoft to focus my energies on raising funds and awareness for the Kenya Child Protection and Education Project, partnering with World Vision. This project is positively affecting 17,000 children in four areas in the North Rift Valley of Kenya by providing access to quality education, building schools, deepening community advocacy for the education of the girl child, and transforming community attitudes toward early marriage and harmful cultural practices. I've held posts as the former national co-chair for the World Vision National Leadership Council for Child Protection, Board of Advisors President for the Renton/Skyway Boys & Girls Club and past founding board member of SeeYourImpact.org. Professionally, I am vice president of U.S. Education for Microsoft Corp. I lead a team responsible for the U.S. Education strategy and sales to K–12 and higher education customers across the U.S. Through partnerships, programs and technology, Microsoft plays a significant role in helping institutions and educators transform learning that makes a real impact on educational outcomes and helps students realize their full potential. I have more than 31 years of experience in high-technology software sales, marketing, business development, and partner and channel management, and at Microsoft for the past 14 years holding previous roles of Vice President, West Region SMS&P and Vice President, US Partners. I was honored with the 2014 Circle of Excellence, Platinum Club Founders award , 2006 Microsoft Most Inspirational Woman award, and in 2012 was nominated for the Anita Borg Women of Vision Social Impact Award. I live in the Seattle area and enjoy backpacking, boating, cycling, scuba diving, skiing, golf, adventure travel and, when it’s rainy outside, attending concerts and theater as well as enjoying a great glass of wine.
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