We’re so excited to announce the newest member of the Global WISER Family: our new country manager, Grace Murika! Grace comes to WISER with a wealth of experience in program design, fundraising, and strategic partnership development. Based in Nairobi, Kenya, Grace has worked in both rural and urban settings to design and implement programs focusing on Sexual and Reproductive Health, Education, Water and Nutrition, and Child Protection. Grace has worked with such organizations as the Kenya AIDS Consortium, the Kenya Network of Women with AIDS, Pathfinder International, and Terre des Hommes Foundation.
The country manager position represents a long-awaited strategic step in WISER’s development, and will expand the capacity of our Kenya-based school staff and NGO Board. Grace will report to the WISER NGO in Kenya and oversee our flagship program, the WISER girls secondary school, as well as our clean water initiatives and community health education and access programming. Grace will work to strengthen our programs, expand our partnerships and community impact, and increase our fundraising capabilities.
Liddy Grantland, WISER’s communications and development assistant, sat down to talk with Grace about her vision for her work at WISER and beyond.
Questions and responses have been edited for length and clarity.
First of all, tell us about how you came to be at WISER. What were your first thoughts about WISER when you came across the position? What made you decide to say yes?
One of the things that really stuck me when I saw the position was the location within a rural setting. I also grew up in a rural setting, so I’m familiar with challenges and barriers to access to key services, especially for girls. I asked myself, “What difference can I make in the life of these girls? How can my story inspire them?” WISER is in the place where I believe we can make the greatest impact–a rural setup, focused on rural girls, inspiring them to get their education and change their world and their communities.
How have your experiences with education in Kenya influenced the advocacy, fundraising, program development, and consulting work you’ve done throughout your career?
As I grew up, I noticed those barriers. If a girl became pregnant, she couldn’t continue her education, she would have to drop out. And especially in secondary school settings, girls were shying away from STEM subjects, and had lower self esteem. I thought, “what can I really do to change this? How can we ensure that these girls believe in themselves and in a brighter future?” In every position in my career, I’ve assessed the work we’re doing by asking, are we designing programs that include girls, that are empowering girls?
For example, one of the programs I helped design was about making sure that girls who had gotten pregnant could have the opportunity to continue education. We designed a program similar to homeschooling; a tutor would meet one-on-one with girls while they were at home, so they were able to resume school when their pregnancy was complete. We made it possible for one student to sit for her KCPE (Kenya Certificate of Primary Education) exam while she was in the hospital having a baby. A proctor came and she took the exam, and she did so well, she got into a good secondary school. So it’s checking every program that I’m a part of, asking, “Are they working with enough flexibility and creativity to deal with every barrier a girl might have to education?”
Much of your work has been focused on HIV/AIDS prevention and advocacy. How do you feel like that experience will show up at WISER? How do you see WISER as an HIV/AIDS intervention, and where do you see areas of growth in WISER’s impact on HIV/AIDS?
HIV/AIDS is a broad subject with diverse issues around it, and the ones most impacted by HIV/AIDS around the world are women and girls. If anyone in a family is unwell due to HIV/AIDS, it is almost always the girls who will stay home to care for them. When I look at the history of how WISER started, you know that it has been developed to address the risk factors for HIV/AIDS. For this, you need a holistic approach to address it, at multiple levels. You have the individual level, where girls have the information they need to protect themselves from HIV and share that with their peers. Then you have the household level. Do we have economic issues in the home? What are the opportunities we can use to make sure that the girls we have just empowered with resources can now be empowered to care for their families?
Nutrition is an example. Students eat well at school, but when you have a family that is economically impacted by HIV/AIDS, they do not eat as well as home. So an HIV/AIDS intervention is teaching them to grow their own food and create balanced meals in their homes as well. I see this as an area of growth for WISER. In the community, there are girls who may not be WISER girls, but still can gain opportunities through resources that WISER could grow to provide, like nutrition, vocational, or business training. It’s a program we could grow and grow and grow, there’s so much opportunity there.
The COVID-19 pandemic has obviously changed not only how WISER operates, but it has also changed the supports, and the challenges, present for girls around the world. How do you see your role, and the role of WISER in general, in responding to the changing needs of girls during the pandemic?
When we look at the pandemic and their impact, I’m looking especially at the SRH (Sexual and Reproductive Health) program. At WISER, students have been trained to educate the community on SRH. Since the pandemic, there have been reports of a lot more teenage pregnancies around the world. At one point the reported numbers in Kenya were so high they were disputed until communities confirmed they were in fact accurate. This is where WISER has the opportunity to ask, what kind of engagement do we have with the community while students are at home? Can we do small groups or peer mentoring?
There are also, of course, the economic challenges of COVID-19. We know now that girls are risking themselves to get food for their families through transactional sex. How do we empower the families so the girls do not have to do that? How do we create linkages and collaborations with microfinance and other organizations to empower communities and families so that the economic impact does not fall on girls? I’ve seen it work, with programs to support women with HIV/AIDS, teaching microfinance and business skills to make sure that women and girls are empowered economically, so that they can survive when the economy is so challenging, like during COVID-19.
How do you feel like WISER’s approach is different from other NGOs? Other secondary schools?
One thing I noted and liked about WISER from the beginning is the value of accountability. Accountability and transparency are so strong within the organization. The transparency is unique at WISER and it gives us the opportunity to grow, because no one is going to donate if they don’t know how you are spending their money! I also think there’s opportunity to increase the visibility within Kenya, and leveraging the opportunities that we have in-country. I don’t know of any other school that has such updated facilities, like the computer labs, especially not a girls’ school or a rural school. One of the things the government has been emphasizing is the issue of communication and technology. So the government is focusing on training youth in digital literacy, and WISER is already doing this, even as the government is struggling. So how could we work with the government to expand these opportunities? How could we become a hub for digital literacy going forward?
What excites you most about being the country manager at WISER? What are your biggest dreams for WISER?
I’m getting to work in an area I’m really passionate about: girls empowerment. I love mentorship, and I haven’t been able to do it as directly in other capacities. I love encouraging girls and helping them believe in themselves. Also, as WISER expands to include grades 7 and 8, I see many opportunities to expand other areas of WISER’s work as well. I see WISER growing, and going far, in the coming years.
WISER is honored that Grace is bringing her brilliance, tenacity, and determination to our work!