09/14/2012 11:55 am ET Updated Nov 14, 2012

A Ritual of Hope

Across the country, a ritual has begun. Activities escalate as children and parents embrace the new school year. New teachers or a new school, preparation for classes, maybe an excited, sleepless night, and before you know it, the day arrives and children march off with overstuffed packs bouncing on their backs. Even in the midst of debates about education policy and financing, we hold dear the fundamental promise of this ritual -- a season bearing new ideas, friends and futures.

For many of the world's children, school is neither a right nor a ritual -- it is a daily struggle. Across the developing world, street children and child laborers struggle to learn while working to help support their family. Imagine the stress of children waking up in Haiti, the DRC or other places ravaged by nature or by man. How easy is the transition from child soldier to student?

Refugees, ethnic minorities and rural children all struggle to access quality education and achieve their potential. Fifty-four percent of those who never enter a classroom are little girls. The very children who stand to gain the most from education are struggling to get it. As a global community, whether they ever get the learning they deserve matters to us all.

Consider Pakistan, a place where the Global Fund for Children invests in seven grassroots organizations reaching some of the region's most vulnerable children. One of these groups, Aware Girls, serves the northwest district outside Peshawar -- a place where, all too often, militants bomb girls' schools to make their point. Aware Girls' commitment to education, peace building and gender equality reminds us that the work is hard and the stakes are high.

Education changes everything. With it, children can imagine their future. They learn to expect more of themselves and others. Since the Millennium Development Goals set forth the case of universal education in 2000, a number of reports have documented how even basic learning leads to poverty reduction and quantifiably better outcomes.

The Brookings Institution tells us that for every additional year of education, income increases 10 percent. UNICEF research reveals that in conflict and disaster regions, education provides stability and supports social change. For girls, there is even more powerful data: education is a sure way to reduce HIV rates and child mortality. Educating girls is also the best way to prevent them from falling victim to child marriage.

How can we bring more education to the children who need it most?

We have seen that supporting homegrown innovators is one of the best ways to reach these children. They take education where it's needed. Mobile classrooms pull up next to landfills in Cambodia for children who pick trash during the day. Grassroots organizations bring education into prisons in Nepal and Bolivia, where children live with an incarcerated parent because they have no where else to go.

I am inspired by the lengths children and parents go to grasp a chance to learn. I've seen school buildings in South Africa full on a Saturday with volunteers and students to make sure that lessons and homework get all the time they need. In parts of India where working is a necessity, night schools and solar lamps are game changers for children. My friend Jackson Kaguri, who founded Nyaka School for AIDS orphans in Uganda, speaks often about Scovia, a young girl born HIV-positive who found a home and hope in his school. Her dying wish was to be buried in her beloved school uniform.

These types of schools provide a bridge to safety, happiness and learning. They are successful because they are run by local leaders who grew up in the same environment. They know better than anyone what these children need and how to get them the one thing no one can take away.

There have been strides in universal education but there is so much more to do. Conflict regions, gender inequities and a global economic slowdown are barriers to progress. Over 67 million school-age children are out of school. Others don't get nearly what they deserve. What will their future hold? What thoughts and theories about the world will their life experience provide? These questions have meaning not just for big governments and multi-laterals like the World Bank and the UN. They are questions for all of us.

As you begin this year's back to school ritual and all that goes with it, keep the world's children in mind. We owe it to them to make sure they all get to school.

Kristin Lindsey is the CEO of The Global Fund for Children in Washington, DC. Kristin has a career spanning 25 years of community change, government service and philanthropy in Chicago, Washington, DC and globally. Prior to joining The Global Fund for Children in 2011, Kristin served as the executive vice president and COO of the Council on Foundations, a DC-based membership association of nearly 2,000 grantmaking foundations and corporations.

The Global Fund for Children (GFC) finds and invests in innovative, community-based organizations working with some of the world's most vulnerable children. Since 1997, GFC has invested $25 million in over 500 grassroots organizations in 78 countries, serving over 7 million children.
Follow The Global Fund for Children on Twitter: @GFCnews