Bicycles are such a taken-for-granted part of our lives that it may be hard for most of us to remember how this invention changed gender dynamics in the Western world and beyond. By the end of the nineteenth century, bicycles had become a symbol of women’s rights. Newspapers were announcing that “woman is riding to suffrage on the bicycle”, a declaration attributed to both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. On her “steed of steel,” the new woman was “riding to greater freedom, to a nearer equality with man, to the habit of taking care of herself, and to new views on the subject of clothes philosophy,” noted The Columbian newspaper, in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1895. Similarly, cycling is now changing the landscape of gender dynamics on the African continent.
Several NGOs are now either shipping donated bicycles to Africa or manufacturing them specifically for the continent, and one of their main aims is women’s empowerment. In many parts of Africa, such as rural Ghana, it is rare to see a woman cycling. According to a study about Ghana, co-authored by Professor Gina Porter, this is because of male attitudes against women cycling and the fact that many women simply do not have the time to learn to ride a bike on top of their chores.
Indeed, as World Bicycle Relief points out, girls are expected to do far more household chores than boys, and if girls arrive at school at all, they are usually late and tired. By cycling, girls and women would be able to carry out these chores – such as collecting water, food and wood – much more quickly, which would allow them to go to school and spend more time on homework. It would also allow to improve their health. As the NGO, Re~Cycle, notes, it is common for young women to carry collected water and firewood on their heads, which often causes long-term damage by compressing their spines and straining their necks. Bicycles modified to carry these loads can help prevent such long-term damage.
Cycling also improves the lives of women in Africa in other ways. It allows women to have easier access to health services and markets for their products and frees up time for them to start their own enterprises. Before getting a Buffalo Bicycle produced by World Bicycle Relief, Kesia, a volunteer health worker in Sori, Kenya, could only visit four clients per day due to the long distances and harsh conditions in the area. Now she regularly cares for 75 clients per day.
Another major benefit of bicycles is that they help fight sexual violence. According to Re~Cycle, the average woman in Africa walks for four hours a day, and while doing so she’s often berated or even assaulted. For example, prior receiving bicycles from World Bicycle Relief, girls walking to Mahanga Secondary School in Kakamega County in Kenya would be regularly harassed by motorcycle taxi drivers offering rides for sexual favours.
Another example is from Harare, Zimbabwe – Jane Mademo remembers how “no woman was safe on Zimbabwe’s roads.” There, most women rely on over-crowded public transportation or lifts from cars passing by and are subjected to attempts at seduction, harassment, and sexual assault. Once she received a bicycle from a female friend, she felt she “was no longer a hostage to religion, tradition, or men.”
So it seems that the new woman on the African continent is riding towards greater gender equality on her “steed of steel.”