‘I can pedal faster than a man can run’ –
how bikes are changing the dynamic on
Africa's roads | Global development | The
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Women's rights and gender equality
‘I can pedal faster than a man can run’ – how bikes are changing the
dynamic on Africa's roads
Campaigns to get people cycling are focusing on girls and women, making it
easier for them to get to school, helping with business and reducing sex
Susannah Savage Tue 25 Jul 2017 09.00 BST Last modified on Mon 4 Mar 2019
A 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
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
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
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
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.
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Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race
- H.G. Wells
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