teenage girl cycles down a dusty road in rural Ghana
, a younger sibling balanced precariously on the back of her saddle. A dozen other cyclists are pedalling up and down the road, all men. As in many parts of the country, it is unusual to see a woman riding a bike. Yet it is women who stand to gain the most from cycling.
Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria and South Africa are among several African countries targeted by campaigns to get people cycling. Such schemes generally involve shipments of donated bicycles from the west: Village Bicycle Project
delivers 10,000 bicycles a year to Sierra Leone and Ghana, while World Bicycle Relief
and Ghana Bamboo Bikes
manufacture two-wheelers specifically for African markets.
Using bikes instead of cars could help to decongest polluted cities such as Kampala, where the Ugandan government optimistically introduced cycle lanes in 2015. The main emphasis, however, is on people for whom a bike is a way of speeding up long walks to school, clinics, work or markets – chiefly women.
“It’s mostly the women in Sierra Leone and Ghana who do not just do all the household chores, but also go to the fields, to the farm, to the market to sell their produce,” says Joshua Poppel, executive director of Village Bicycle Project. In Tanzania, women and girls carry out 90% of the household chores involving walking – often for hours each day – to collect water, food and wood.
That keeps them out of school. “It’s not just the distances children have to walk to school, often up to 10km each way, but for the girls it’s also these time-consuming chores they’re expected to do before and after school,” says Allison Dufosee, head of World Bicycle Relief.
Women and girls are far less likely than men to have access to bicycles, according to Professor Gina Porter, an anthropologist at the University of Durham. Often there’s a social stigma attached to women riding a bike. In Sierra Leone, for example, there’s a belief that a woman can lose her virginity by riding a bike. “Woman showing their legs is also an issue,” says Porter.
A study she co-authored in Ghana on transport use, published in 2014,found that bicycles “were very rarely used by women, despite the researchers’ offers to teach them if they did not know how to ride. It transpired that a number of wives had simply purchased cycles on their husbands’ behalf. The equipment was paid for by the husband and used by him, despite formal ownership in the wife’s name: clearly this was why men’s cycles with a cross bar had been selected. It transpired that women and girls often simply did not have the time to learn to ride because of their housework and other duties and male attitudes to girls learning to cycle.”
Poppel says men often commandeer bicycles: “The usual gender stereotypes come into play – if there’s a bike in a household it will be co-opted by men.”
In Zambia, the issue is that girls have less free time to learn to ride a bike, so cycles are more likely to go to boys.
World Bicycle Relief, which has distributed and sold hundreds of thousands of bikes, is working with schools to change the dynamic. “Without doubt, the impact is much greater when women and girls are targeted,” says Dufosee. She adds that on average, in the schools they work with, attendance goes up by 30% and grades by 50%. A study they carried out in Zambia
[pdf] in 2012 found that 21% of parents reported that distance was the main reason their children were not in school; after bicycles were distributed, none of them attributed their children’s absence to distance.
Another outcome is a reduction in sex attacks. “I can pedal faster than a man can run,” says Irene, a 12-year-old Zambian, when asked what she likes most about cycling.
When the girls leave school they keep their bikes. “Distance is the barrier to economic empowerment,” says Dufosee. “A bike makes all the difference.” Women who have cycles can set up their own businesses and take products to markets they otherwise would not have had access to.
“I am financially independent now,” says Selina Abuakwa, a Ghanian farmer and mother of three, who used to walk 7km to reach her farm. She says a bike means she can “spend more time on the farm and increase her harvest”. She is also able take her cassava to Accra to sell it directly to customers.