In Tanzania, a group of girls is starting secondary school this January. The girls are nervous and excited, as most teens are during this rite of passage, but the SEGA Girls School offers more than just a high school education.
To this group of 26 girls, ages 14 to 16, a secondary education can mean a way out of poverty and abuse and into a life of self-sufficiency.
SEGA -- Secondary Education for Girls Advancement -- is a small school in Tanzania's Mkundi village. It's designed to give at-risk young women a chance to complete their secondary education.
In a country where only 49 percent of students complete their primary education, according to the Tanzanian Ministry of Education, girls often drop out when families cannot afford tuition. Many are raised in abusive homes and struggle to provide food for themselves, making it all the more difficult to complete an education. Up until recently, a law required girls to drop out of school when they became pregnant.
And schools in Tanzania are not always safe, welcoming environments for students, said Tracey Dolan, president of Nurturing Minds, a non-profit dedicated to raising funds to educate Tanzanian girls. She said most Tanzanian public education is comparable to early-20th century education in the United States -- rote learning, memorization and recitation, and corporal punishment for even minor infractions.
Nurturing Minds director Polly Dolan, Tracey's sister, had been living and working in Tanzania for years when she got the idea to found the school. She discovered that girls who attended school were often put in the position of exchanging sex for housing or food, and that girls who were able to complete a secondary education had children later in their lives, were healthier and had better opportunities for jobs that would help support their families.
Polly talked to her sister Tracey, who was in the United States, about starting an organization to raise money for her cause. They started Nurturing Minds, which funded SEGA with the goal of giving disadvantaged girls in Tanzania a second chance at a high school education. She recruited local girls from the city of Morogoro who had dropped out of school because of poverty, were orphaned or for other reasons out of their control.
"The night before we told the girls ... that they had been chosen, I couldn't sleep at all," Polly Dolan said in an email. "I realized what a huge commitment we were making to them and I actually had no idea if we could pull it off."
The school receives 60 to 100 applicants a year, but only 30 are accepted per graduating class so that girls can receive individual attention. The girls vary in age when they enroll. Some are as old as 16 and may have been out of school for years before joining SEGA.
The girls take courses required by the ministry of education -- mathematics, geography, history -- but they are also taught life skills such as bookkeeping and business.
In conjunction with the microfinance organization Fundacion Paraguaya, SEGA is also starting businesses that students will help operate, such as hotels, shops and even agrobusiness, bringing in several hundred chickens for the girls to raise and sell. Tracey Dolan said she hopes that adding real business experience to the classroom will make the school and the students self-sufficient.
"Running businesses that the school would operate is key to our program to generate income but also for the girls to have hands-on experience in running businesses so they can work for someone else or run their own," she said.
While SEGA hasn't graduated any students yet -- it started just three years ago -- the most advanced class just completed its Form II exams, a national exam necessary to move on to the fourth year of high school.
What started with a rented classroom and a non-formal day program to get girls caught up to a 7th or 8th grade education level has expanded to four buildings, 85 students and six teachers. A new classroom and dormitory are almost complete, and six more buildings are on the way with a grant from USAID. By 2015, the school hopes to have 200 girls.
Polly Dolan said she is already seeing the school make a difference in the young women's lives.
"It's amazing what a stable environment, three square meals, and a small class size can do for a lot of girls," she said. "Going from an environment where a girl is expected to fail, and told she is inadequate to one where she is encouraged and expected to be able to make the grade has in some cases made all the difference."