COVID-19 has kept more than 168 million children around the world out of school for more than a year, but as schools reopen, it’s important not to forget another stubborn and powerful barrier keeping children out of class—distance.
According the world bank“The most important determinant of primary schooling is proximity to a school.” In country after country, from India to Mali, evidence shows that the further children are from school, the less likely they are to attend. And as we see in Figures 1 and 2, this is especially true for girls.
Figure 1. Grade 9 enrollment or completion by distance and genderIndia
Source: American Economic Review2017.
Distance to school is a particular factor challengee for the girls in sub-Saharan Africa, where data from eight countries indicate that more … than 1 in 4 prmarie schoolchildren live more than of them kbemethers from the nearest school, while ssecondary schools for rural students are often hours on foot.
This long walk to school amplifies the already daunting challenges facing rural girls, including poverty, insecurity, violence, and social norms that are hostile or indifferent to girls’ education. Walking to school can make girls vulnerable to harassment and assault and can deepen their families’ poverty by preventing girls from helping on the family farm before or after school. When walking is added to daily chores, such as fetching water, girls may have to do part of their journey before dawn or after dusk.
Faced with these challenges, many parents—fear for their daughter’s safety or worry about making ends meet—withdraw their daughters from school. According UNESCO, only 1% of the poorest girls in low-income countries complete secondary school.
Bring girls to school
A strong global body of evidence has revealed that getting girls in school and keeping them in school for as long as possible is one of the most powerful levers to empower girls, drive economic growth, improve health outcomes and reduce exploitative practices such as child marriage. .
Until recently, strategies to increase girls’ schooling and attendance focused on three levers: building more schools, reducing school fees, and conditional cash transfers to families. Building more schools can be effective, but in many rural areas, this can lead to an educational model based on scaled-down one-room schools unable to provide quality education. Reducing school fees and providing conditional cash transfers to families who enroll their daughters in school do not address the fundamental challenge facing girls—miles and miles of unpaved roads between their home and school.
Proof that bikes help girls get to school and stay in school
There is growing recognition – based on research in Colombia, IndiaMalawi, Zimbabwe, and a high-quality randomized controlled trial in Zambia—that bicycles can serve as an effective non-cash conditional transfer to help girls get to and stay in school.
Over the past decade, Zambia’s Ministry of Education has partnered with World Bicycle Relief to help nearly 37,000 rural girls get to school quickly and safely through a locally-run, cost-effective program . Girls enrolled in the program sign “service to own” agreements with their community, pledging to complete their education in exchange for the use and eventual ownership of a bicycle. In addition to providing at-risk rural girls with specially designed bikes, the program trains local mechanics to keep these bikes in service for years to come.
A rigor randomized controlled trial and subsequent evaluations of the program revealed that girls equipped with a bicycle reduced their commuting time by more than an hour a day, reduced their absenteeism by 28%, were 19% less likely to drop out of school and performed better on assessments in mathematics (see Figure 3). They also reported feeling more in control of decisions affecting their lives, ranked higher academically, believed more in their potential to succeed in life, and had experienced 22% less sexual harassment and/or teasing on the way to school.
Picture 3. Results of WBR cycling program Zambia
Source: adapted from World Bicycle Relief2022. Designed by Brookings.
A father remarked that his daughter, equipped with a durable bike specially designed for rough terrain, was suddenly “smarter”. The heartache is that we know she didn’t suddenly gain IQ points. She saved time and energy.
We know all of these girls have gifts. Some are brilliant writers, some are creative thinkers, some are mathematical prodigies, and some are budding engineers. But when they are exhausted and hungry from their long walks to school and fetch water and work on the farm, they are even more challenged to demonstrate or develop that genius or talent.
We recognize that durable, fit-for-purpose bikes will not guarantee that every girl goes to school, stays in school, and learns in school. But it is a powerful, inexpensive and sustainable tool, effective in many circumstances and geographies that too many governments and donors have—so far—ignored. As schools reopen, the world has a chance to respond with a holistic set of solutions to prevent an entire generation of girls from losing an education due to rural exclusion. Along with investing in quality learning, let’s reconsider the demands we place on rural girls, lighten their load, and recognize the miles and miles of unpaved roads that separate them from the world they (and us) want.