Susan B. Anthony once said, "I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can't get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood."
These words—spoken by a 19th century American feminist—could not be truer in present-day rural Cambodia, where a bicycle can mean the difference between a young woman reaching her full potential and a life of oppression.
In Cambodia, school ends at the primary level for many girls simply because the nearest secondary school is too far to commute to by foot. Furthermore, this long commute is dangerous. Rape and other forms of violence against women have reached epidemic proportions in the Cambodian countryside, and parents are rightfully concerned for their daughters’ safety. The vast majority of the underage rape victims in our women’s shelter in Cambodia were assaulted while walking alone.
Given a sturdy bicycle, however, many of these seemingly insurmountable barriers to education disappear. Lotus Outreach International, a grassroots NGO entering its 20th year of operation, has been filling this critical gap in education access since 2005 by supplying heavy-terrain bicycles to the poorest girls living more than one mile from the nearest schoolhouse. To date, our Lotus Pedals project has given more than 1,000 girls a reliable method of getting to school each day—and in 2013 alone we hope to double this figure.
The value of investing in girls in developing countries—i.e., the “Girl Effect”—is now well established. We know, for example, that a single year of schooling in a country like Cambodia will increase a girl’s eventual wages by 25 percent. What’s more, the children of mothers with primary school education are half as likely to die before the age of five.
But the Lotus Pedals project has taught us something even more astounding: investing in the education of these girls can help a nation heal from genocide. Today, less than two percent of Cambodian women possess education beyond high school, a tragic legacy left by the Khmer Rouge’s systematic campaign to decimate the entire nation’s intellectual class.
Lotus Outreach is deeply committed to reversing this statistic, one girl at a time. Indeed, 58 girls that first received Lotus Pedals bikes in junior high school have now matriculated to university and are majoring in subjects such as law, economics, pedagogy, rural development, and nursing. These bright young women promise not only to break the cycle of poverty for their families, but also to rebuild the educated class that was purged during the genocide just one generation ago.
Just as the wheel altered the course of human history, a bicycle can completely alter the fate of a girl in the developing world. The fact is, if someone had not taken an interest in these girls—if someone had not decided that getting them to school safely was important—their fates would look much different. They would be working as farm laborers, pregnant with their fourth and fifth child, or even trapped in Malaysian brothels.
To me, it is an absolute tragedy to imagine this, but it is even more tragic to imagine what Cambodia—and the world—would lose if these bright, untapped minds were left to wither for want of something as simple as a ride to school.
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