Global Cooperation

How bicycles empower women

Leszek J. Sibilski
Consultant, The World Bank
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In 2015 alone, the UN Refugee Agency reported that of the 520,957 people attempting to cross the Mediterranean, 2,980 died or went missing. Eighteen percent of the migrants are children and 13% are women. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, an estimated 200,000 additional refugees are still planning to make the sea journey by the end of 2015. So, the seismic human waves are far from subsiding in the region.

Today, there are a series of internal and regional armed conflicts around the world, most of which are concentrated in two regions: the Middle East and Africa. The desperate attempts by so many Syrians to flee Assad regime’s and the Islamic state’s terror by escaping to security in Europe has caught the world’s attention. However, Syrians are not alone in deserving compassion. Although international interest in Afghanistan has waned and most foreign troops are gone, the war there is only getting worse. In addition, there is an influx of desperate refugees from Eritrea, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Gambia, and Bangladesh who are just as entitled to refugee status as the others.

While humanity is being washed ashore in the Mediterranean Sea, the treacherous passage does not resemble a migration, but a human tsunami. The departing refugees and migrants leave a vacuum, as the most skilled, able-bodied, and educated keep leaving the continent, most of them are males.  This leaves females, elderly and disabled behind and entangled in the local violence. The families left behind often count on reuniting with their loved ones in the near future or hope to receive remittances to support their livelihoods as they try to rebuild their communities.

What should the world do with these gutted societies? The global community should invest in women power, leadership opportunities for women, and in modifying the social order with regards to female emancipation on the continent. We must pay immediate attention and react with empathy and solidarity.

One great way to empower women and girls is a bicycle. In poor areas where distance is a challenge, the bicycle in many instances is an obvious choice of reliable transportation and a natural tool to improve the lives of many; and possibly also serving as a “freedom machine.”

As an example, the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami erupted with 9.3 undersea earthquake that lasted up to 10 minutes, causing the entire planet to vibrate. According to the US Geological Survey, the earthquake released the energy of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs. Over the next seven hours, the tsunami reached out across the Indian Ocean, devastating coastal areas as far away as East Africa. The tsunami ultimately claimed over 230,000 lives in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Maldives and Somalia.  World Bicycle Relief (WBR) was one of the first groups to provide bicycles to victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, enabling them to begin to rebuild their lives and communities.

F.K. Day, Co-Founder and President, World Bicycle Relief, once said, “Where freedom and independence is sought and distance is a barrier to accessing vital services and markets, then bicycles serve an essential role in achieving that access.”  World Bicycle Relief accomplishes their mission by providing high quality durable bicycles (Buffalo Bicycles as they are known) with the vision to eliminate distance as a barrier to education, healthcare and economic opportunity. Compared to walking, bicycles increase carrying capacity by five times and distance traveled by four times greater thereby significantly decreasing the time it takes to get to and from schools, clinics and markets. Bicycles are simple, sustainable and appropriate technology to bridge the transportation gap between needs and resources empowering girls, families and communities.

Due to the success of the tsunami relief program, aid organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa requested World Bicycle Relief’s assistance with a healthcare program. The organization provided 23,000 specially designed, locally assembled bicycles to volunteer healthcare workers treating HIV/AIDS patients in rural Zambia. Measurement and lessons learned from this healthcare program informed the expansion of its programming to education, bicycle field mechanic training, and social enterprise solutions. Over the past ten years, World Bicycle Relief has distributed more than 260,000 specially designed Buffalo Bicycles.

With a similar spirit, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), which represents the sport of cycling, views the growth of women’s participation as one of its key missions. Indeed, the sport of cycling may be one of the means to overcome some of the cultural barriers women face to using the bike as a means of transport. In Afghanistan, for instance, the creation and support of a women’s national cycling team has helped make cycling acceptable for women in one of the world’s poorest and socially unequal countries. “Cycling is a sport of growing significance for the Middle East, with new races like the Abu Dhabi Tour and next year’s UCI Road World Championships in Doha, Qatar, but also means of inspiring people to be more active, teach kids about road safety and use the bike as a means of transport,” states Brian Cookson OBE, The President of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI).

This article is published in collaboration with World Bank. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Leszek J. Sibilski is a Professor of Sociology and longtime advocate for issues related to climate change, the environment, family, public policy, global poverty, youth, and role of women in contemporary society.

Image: A villager pushes his bicycle through flood waters. REUTERS/Antony Njuguna.

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