THE BLOG

Two-Wheeled Dreams Have Lasting Impact

06/22/2015 09:50 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

Among our priorities in helping provide a better future for children in developing countries, one area of focus rises to the top: the protection of children. It's an issue we are tackling on many fronts... and sometimes on two wheels.

From a global perspective, ChildFund International has been a leading voice in championing the rights of children as a matter of public policy, helping ensure that governments around the world have laws in place that keep children safe and healthy. Our work on the local level is no less important. In some of the smallest villages in Asia, Africa and the Americas, we are helping shift cultural attitudes about the obligations of parents and the moral imperative of protecting children from harm.

Those local efforts have deepened our insights into the scope of the many risks to children, and one, in particular, has us focused on a commonsense solution. In many places around the world, especially in rural, outlying areas, children often have to travel great distances in order to get to and from school. There are, of course, no school buses, and traveling to school for these children means leaving the house in the pre-sunrise darkness, walking hours to school and often returning after dark. The terrain along the route can be rough and hazardous, and dangerous predators -- both animal and human -- can lurk around the next turn. The risks and challenges are especially pronounced for young girls, and as a result, many are forced to abandon their education.

To address this predicament, diminish the risks and give girls a better chance of continuing their schooling, we have initiated a practical solution: Provide bikes to girls in need so that they can get to school safely and without having to walk those many miles. So far, more than 3,100 girls have received bikes through what we call the Dream Bike program, and the impact already has been profound. Recently, we unveiled a campaign to raise funds to purchase bicycles for thousands more girls who need them. Our goal is to acquire bikes for 3,400 girls in a dozen developing countries -- including Laos and Ethiopia, India and Liberia.

A straightforward solution, the Dream Bike program eliminates one of the many obstacles to keeping girls in school. But there are other challenges as well. In many developing nations, public education is not totally free, at least in the way we know it here. Often, there are school fees that must be paid as well as other expenses - books, uniforms and other classroom supplies. For poor families struggling to make ends meet, these costs make a child's education a luxury that they cannot afford. Compound these expenses with the pressures on many children to go to work so that they are contributing to their family's incomes, and children see their hopes of continuing their schooling dry up like so many summer puddles.

Here again, girls in particular fall victim to this all-too-common scenario. Cultural biases restrict their opportunities so that, rather than be given the chance to continue their educations, they are often consigned to duties around the home or toiling on the family farm. Within the world's least developed countries, some 70 percent of secondary school-aged girls do not go to school. As a result, it's hard to imagine that their futures will be any brighter than those of their own mothers. In fact, of the more than three-quarters of a billion adults worldwide who cannot read or write, two in three are women.

Our work at the local level helps families recognize that restricting their daughters' education limits their longer-term prospects for a better life. Our efforts in this area are yielding profound and lasting results. We know, for example, that the children of educated women have much lower child mortality rates and much higher rates of immunization. Educated girls marry later and have fewer children. For every year that a girl stays in school, her future earning power increases by 10 to 20 percent. It's clear that keeping girls in school has an important generational impact.

Dream Bikes are just one way we are helping open up that world of possibilities for young girls, and it's putting smiles on the faces of the girls receiving the bikes. I can recall that moment in childhood when my mother gave my sister and me our first bike, which we shared. Learning to ride it was a moment of sheer joy, an important milestone of sorts for my sister and me. But we were riding it not as a vital link to our future (although that bike would enable me to get my first job, delivering newspapers), but simply as a plaything.

Dream Bikes, of course, are much more than that. Keeping girls in school and helping sustain their educations will put the wind at their backs - and make things better for generations to come.

For more information about ChildFund International's Dream Bike program, visit https://www.childfund.org/Dream-Bike/.