08/26/2011 11:26 am ET Updated Oct 26, 2011

Pedaling Back to School: How Bicycles Bridge the Gap in Education Access For Girls in Rural Asia

Every morning, a small yellow school bus stops in front of my house to pick up the neighbors' kids. Grabbing their new book bags, they lament the end of the summer break, while showing off this year's school clothes to their friends.

At the same time but on the other side of the world, hundreds of thousands of kids in India and Cambodia will be oblivious to the start of the academic year as they begin another day at work, perhaps picking through garbage dumps for recyclables or hauling goods back and forth across the border to Thailand. According to the World Bank, an estimated 750,000 Cambodian children under the age of 12 were working in 2006. Most of these were girls.

Study after study reveals that all over the world, education is the single most effective catalyst for reducing poverty and remedying its myriad consequences -- from lower life expectancy to maternal mortality to malnutrition. Deep-rooted gender biases, extreme poverty, the family's need for an extra income, and the cost of books and materials are a few of the reasons why Cambodian girls so often work instead of going to school. Though there are seemingly countless reasons for gaps in education access in the developing world, transportation is often the single largest gap and -- thankfully -- one of the simplest to fill.

International nonprofit Lotus Outreach has efficiently bridged the distance with all-terrain bicycles, distributing them to several hundred of the most vulnerable girls in its program areas in rural Cambodia -- those on the brink of dropping out. Moreover, many children give their friends or neighbors rides to class, increasing the impact of each bike. The program, called Lotus Pedals, also provides repair kits to ensure the bikes can continue to be used year after year.

In developed societies the reliable operation of a safe, publicly-funded school bus that takes children from their doorsteps to the classroom is often taken for granted. Nothing like this exists in rural Cambodia, where 78 percent of the population resides. Thousands of children drop off the rolls each year for want of a means to travel a few miles. Walking unsupervised up to several hours a day is incredibly risky for a child, especially girls; rape is rampant, and rarely punished.

The most susceptible period for a girl is the transition from primary to secondary school; fewer secondary schools mean they often lie beyond her home village. Too often, this is where her formal education will end; 20 percent of Cambodian girls who complete primary school will not continue on to lower secondary school, with dropout rates increasing as they transition to high school. Lotus Pedals targets the most marginalized of these young women -- the daughters of sex workers, ethnic minorities, and the economically bereft.

With one simple gift, Lotus Pedals simultaneously combats gender inequality, economic disparity and the vacuum of formal learning that paralyses Cambodia's development as a nation. Bicycles alone will not solve any of these problems, but for $60 each they offer an affordable piece of the answer. "It is amazing to think that something most of us consider a recreational device can mean the difference between whether or not a girl in Cambodia can achieve the promise of education," says Erika Keaveney, Lotus Outreach's Southern California-based Executive Director. "We know that there are hundreds of girls literally sitting at home right now instead of going to school for want of a simple bike."

More recently, Lotus Outreach also began providing bus transportation to adolescent girls in rural India who live too far from the nearest secondary school to commute by foot. The story of 16-year-old Arastun illustrates how something as simple as a ride to school can offer new hope. A spinal cord injury meant she could no longer commute by foot, and her family lost hope for her education. The program, called the Blossom Bus, changed her fortune and the lives of the other 450 children it transports to school every day -- all of whom would otherwise never learn to read and write and would surely (like their parents) confront a life of subsistence labor in the local fields or brick kilns.


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