The bicycle has been hailed as having done “more than anything else in the world to emancipate women”—the words of 19th century American feminist Susan B. Anthony. But for many women in South Africa, culture and tradition make it difficult to take advantage of the increased mobility and access to social and economic opportunities, not to mention the reduced carbon footprint, offered by bicycles.
“Most people think that cycling is for children, and definitely not for African women—especially married ones,” says Myolisi Njoli of Luvo Bicycles, a non-governmental group that manages a programme in the Western Cape Province called ‘Women in Cycling’ on behalf of the provincial government.
Marianne Vanderschuren of the Centre for Transport Studies at the University of Cape Town, and Africa convenor for the Cycling Academic Network (a collaboration between Brazil, India, Holland and South Africa), has come across similar views in her research: fears that cycling makes a woman seem undignified or unfeminine.
Notes Meshack Nchupetsang, one of the directors of the Bicycling Empowerment Network (BEN), also in the coastal city of Cape Town, “It is a challenge to liberate women and get them onto bikes. We live in a century when women are our partners, and bikes offer a way to improve our socio-economic status, but even when women feel free enough to ride, there are these issues of safety…”
According to the latest statistics from the International Road Federation (for 1999-2004), South Africa has the world’s highest death toll on the roads. The federation is a non-profit based in Brussels. In addition, a conference paper by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, a government-funded organisation in South Africa, indicates that 40 to 45 percent of accident victims use non-motorised transport.
“South Africa is a culture with no respect for life,” says Vanderschuren. In this environment, women may view cycling as too dangerous: “Women are the ones with obligations to care for children and family, but are afraid for their lives when they’re vulnerable road users. In South Africa cycling is a high risk activity, and women traditionally take fewer risks.”
Then there is the issue of status: “To get respect in this country, you are supposed to drive or be in a car,” notes Vanderschuren.
‘Women in Cycling’ is making a determined effort to ensure that women on bikes become less of an exception to the rule, however.
A group of 20 women in the low-income settlement of Khayelitsha, Cape Town, recently graduated from the programme, which has been underway for three years. In black cycle shorts, T-shirts and helmets, they received certificates in road safety, cycling skills and maintenance, looking somewhat out of place in an area more used to seeing women walking, or crammed into public transport.
“These women have seen the benefits that riding a bike can bring, and they will not take ‘no’ for an answer,” says Njoli. Approximately 200 women have received training under the initiative.
Bicycles are particularly suited to women’s travel patterns, notes Vanderschuren. This is because women often make more, and shorter trips to a variety of destinations during off-peak commuter times, as they juggle work, child care and household responsibilities.
In addition, bicycles offer freedom from the schedules and time-tables of public transport that might prove confining for women who need flexibility when allocating their time.
“A bicycle is right for me…On a bike I can always do things in my own time,” says Juanita Maguni, who cycles to work in the suburb of Manenberg. Still, while “It’s easy to cycle, it’s…difficult to ignore people’s comments about a woman on a bike…I have to muster my courage to ride.”
In a country where women frequently shoulder the burden of poverty, bicycles can also prove cost efficient. They are faster, cheaper and more efficient than motorised transport over distances of between five and 20 kilometres.
Second-hand bicycles—imported by BEN through partnerships with Dutch and German non-governmental organisations—can cost about 30 dollars, no small amount for many households, and in certain instances the equivalent of two month’s minibus taxi fare. According to the latest United Nations Human Development Report, about a third of people in the country live on less than two dollars a day.
Still, says Rufus Norexe, a bicycle mechanic who works with BEN and lives in the informal area of Westlake, once your bike is paid for, it’s paid for.
According to the most recent South African National Household Travel Survey (from 2003), on average, commuters who earn less than about 75 dollars a month and take public transport spend over a third of that income on transport. The vast majority (more than 80 percent) spend more than 20 percent of their income on transport.
BEN also distributes new and refurbished bikes to health workers and pupils, amongst others—this for its own programmes and on behalf of the national Department of Transport, as well as for Access Africa: a programme of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. This lobby group is based in New York.
“There is a strong correlation between poverty and urban mobility,” says Aimee Gauthier, of Access Africa.
“Poverty complicates mobility and lack of transport options complicates poverty,” she adds. “Transport costs put a lot of financial pressure on households where financial pressures already exist.”
South Africa’s national government has recognised the role that bicycles can play in poverty alleviation, and through its Shova Kalula (“Pedal Easy”, in Zulu) programme aims to deliver one million bicycles throughout South Africa by 2015, mostly to women, health workers and learners.
Until cultural change gathers momentum alongside the provision of bicycles, however, outdated views will continue to put a spoke in the wheel with getting more women on bikes.
“It’s so difficult,” Norexe says, when asked about the number of women who enquire about purchasing bicycles. “People from rural areas, they are holding on to their traditions; and although my wife cycles in Cape Town and wears trousers, she can’t do this on my father’s premises.”