As we wrap up the final admissions interviews, we reach the most difficult part of the process: deciding which girls will receive joyous calls welcoming them to campus, and which will receive letters of regret. With only 30 available spots, we will be sending over 340 such letters this year. We are devastated for their recipients.
As difficult as it is to send letters of regret, we know it is far worse to receive one. So, what happens to these incredible girls who are not accepted to Daraja Academy?
For most of the girls applying to Daraja, this was their chance—and as it ends, so does their education. Despite government announcements that secondary education is free in Kenya, it simply isn’t. Even at the cheapest, lowest-quality day schools (where students rarely even qualify for university), fees amount to thousands of shillings, plus the cost of uniforms and books. Although this only translates to a few hundred US dollars, these fees prove prohibitively high to many families.
There are a few national scholarship programs, but these are not viable options for many Daraja applicants. One prominent scholarship program runs applications through a third-party, which sometimes requests “processing fees” (bribes) that the families cannot afford, blocking students from even applying; for those who do manage to apply, the acceptance is as low as 5%. Some students attempt to fundraise for their education by collecting small amounts of money from friends and family, but these donations usually only cover a few months of school.
Without school, options are limited. We’ve called families to invite students to interview, only to find that parents had already lost hope and sent the young daughter to find work. Often, the only alternative to working is marriage. One student we interviewed described how she had been given a cut-off date: “my mother said that if I stayed at home for one month (without being able to pay for school), I would be married.”
Her story is not unique—we’ve interviewed countless girls who are worried about being married off. Nationally, 1 in 4 girls are married before they turn 18.
There are so many students struggling to reach high school, and it’s difficult knowing that Daraja—which means bridge in Swahili—can’t serve as a bridge to them all. Fortunately, there are many like-minded bridges in Kenya. Hundreds of NGOS, organizations, and schools have stepped up to fill this gap—not to mention the families and individuals across the country who are making incredible sacrifices to keep their daughters in school at all costs. Unfortunately, despite herculean efforts across Kenya, less than half of all high-school aged girls are enrolled in secondary school.
To the 340 girls who will soon be receiving letters of regret, there are no words to express how sorry we are. More than anything, we hope you find your bridge. We are so frustrated at the barriers you face, and so saddened by the stories you told us. You are intelligent, strong, courageous girls. We will be thinking of you as you fight for the education you deserve.