Pass It On: 3 Charities Empowering Women
Most of us take the freedom and independence a bike gives us for granted, but the simple gift of a bike can open up access to jobs, education and healthcare. Here Elizabeth Elliott talks to three charities empowering women by doing exactly that…
“In many parts of the world girls are held back from reaching their potential due to a whole host of social and economic factors,” says Stephen Cromwell, development director at World Bicycle Relief, which in the 12 years it’s been going has distributed over 320,000 bicycles.
“In sub-Saharan Africa alone, 28 million girls don’t attend school. Not only is this unjust but there’s overwhelming evidence that educating girls improves life for the whole community. With access to education girls can do incredible things such as become entrepreneurs, health workers, teachers, scientists and leaders.”
Distance is a major reason why girls don’t attend school and if they do make the journey their grades can suffer due to the fatigue from walking so far every day. “There are also often social pressures that mean girls have to do chores and housework, which takes up time that should be spent studying,” says Stephen. “With a bicycle, journey times are shortened, time is freed up for other obligations and they arrive at school ready to learn.”
The average journey from home to school for the pupils of Bukhaywa Secondary, which Dianah (18) and Angela (15) attend, is 10km. Before the two girls owned bikes the journey was usually done on foot, which meant they arrived tired and often late. In Angela’s case, this was after she’d woken at 4am to do school work and clean the house. The long, lonely walk also brought with it the danger of assault and rape by the many young men who wait by the roadside offering to take girls to school on their motorcycles.
Dianah’s mother, Rofina, remembers how before she got the bike she feared for Dianah’s safety. “I would feel that she might not even finish her education because of the risks facing her on the way,” she says. “Now that she has the bicycle, I have never worried about Dianah going and coming back from school. I want my daughter to have more than I had in life. I know the need for education and want my daughter to learn to the highest.”
Angela’s grandmother, Plantina, is also aware of the advantages that having a bike will bring her granddaughter. “In my family no one has reached university and when I look at Angela I see something good. When she told me I’m one of those chosen to get a bicycle we start clapping our hands, shouting ‘God is good, God is good.’ Now that my granddaughter has a bicycle nobody will stop her. Nobody. I want any girl to be someone great.”
The Bike Project
The Bike Project was founded by Jem Stein in 2013 while he was still a student. He was mentoring two refugees housed in Greater London and, as a cyclist himself, realised how beneficial a bike would be for them.
Initially he encouraged family and friends to donate bikes for them, with the charity growing out of his garage. Fast forward to today and The Bike Project is run by a core team of six and has given more than 2,000 bikes to asylum seekers.
Donations are made by individuals, who either take bikes directly to the workshop or to one of the three drop-off points around London, as well as by universities, the police, and property companies, all of which donate bikes that have been abandoned.
For Sahar, who is from Syria, and other refugees like her, a weekly allowance of £36.95 makes the cost of transport a huge barrier to reaching crucial resources such as health care, social centres and charities, especially in London where most asylum-seekers are housed in outer suburbs. “It gives them a new-found freedom,” says Nicola Hill, operations manager for the The Bike Project’s Women’s Cycling Project. “It reduces the transport costs for accessing the services London has to offer, which means they can access things they couldn’t access before and it really opens up the opportunities for them.”
In addition to providing bicycles, the charity runs workshops and courses teaching women how to ride. Aside from the practical benefits that learning to cycle and ultimately owning a bike can bring, the course also provides women with a social outlet, a renewed self-confidence and a sense of belonging.
“The lessons themselves are the only time in the week that they get out to do something,” says Nicola. “It has a really big social impact on them – people make new friends and bonds form between the group. It’s also a great chance to practise English, and the confidence that comes from learning to cycle at an older age does wonders for mental health.”
“There’s definitely no shortage of women who want to learn,” says Nicola. “We’ve had over 50 women now through the programme – that’s 50 graduates who’ve gone from complete beginners to fully cycling with confidence on the road.”
Find out more about The Bike Project
“I didn’t ride to earn the bike, I bike ride for me,” says Ebony, former Gearing Up programme participant and now Ride Leader. “I want to keep moving forward and to keep learning.” Ebony’s one of around 150 women a year who have received a bike through Philadelphia-based charity Gearing Up while transitioning from addiction, abuse, or imprisonment.
“Our mission is to provide these women with the skills, equipment, and guidance to safely ride a bicycle for exercise, transportation, and personal growth,” explains Gearing Up development director, Amy Spellman. “Gearing Up functions at the intersection of social service and criminal justice, integrating group biking into traditional modalities of treatment and transition.”
Gearing Up was founded in 2009 by Kristin Gavin. Before starting the charity, Kristin ran an aerobics and yoga programme at Interim House, a women’s residential drug and alcohol recovery home in the Mount Airy neighbourhood of Philadelphia. A graduate in exercise and sport psychology, Kristin had an interest in physical activity as a means of coping with stress, anxiety, and depression, and a lifelong love for the bicycle. Witnessing how exercise had made a difference in the lives of the women, as well as in her own life, she felt compelled to introduce bike riding into the lives of women with histories of addiction, abuse, and imprisonment. So with the gift of five bicycles from Fuji Bikes, who continues to provide all the charity’s bikes, Kristin began the first Gearing Up programme at Interim House.
The charity continues to lead rides at Interim house as well as at two other similar facilities in Philadelphia. Any woman enrolled for treatment at one of these three community partners can join Gearing Up’s cycling programme. While enrolment is entirely voluntary, there’s no shortage of women who want to give cycling a go.
“Women in treatment are often excited by the opportunity to ride a bike for the first time in years, participate in a physical activity, and take a break from their regimented treatment,” says Amy.
“Group bike rides provide a space for women to meet new people and socialise while also receiving the physical and emotional benefits of cycling. Our rides are non-competitive and move at a leisurely pace where no participant is ever left behind. Riders of all fitness levels and abilities are welcome and encouraged to ride with us. We often get new riders who are inspired by their peers coming back from a ride in a good mood – laughing, singing, and feeling accomplished. Women will say, ‘My roommate says it makes her feel good,’ or, ‘I heard over lunch that it’s a fun way to get outside.’ To encourage more participation, we often focus on the idea that biking is so much more then exercise; it’s a way to see the city, partake in a sober activity, and make healthy connections to a supportive community.”
Each facility holds three rides per week and new riders can join at any time. Ride leaders track miles ridden, with the overall goal of women pedalling 150 miles and doing a standard bicycle safety check in order to earn their own bicycle. As women gain miles, they also earn incentives such as water bottles, T-shirts and hoodies.
To further encourage the women, the cycling itself is never dull. “Ride leaders always prepare a variety of fun routes that keep everyone pedalling for about an hour and often incorporate stopping at an important Philadelphia monument, taking time to admire the view from a scenic overlook, or enjoying a coffee or ice cream,” says Amy.
“We also do something we call ‘clearing’, where at the beginning of the ride each individual shares something they will leave behind during the ride. Many times answers include sadness, depression, stress, or negative thoughts. Upon return, each rider then shares something they’re bringing back from the ride. These answers almost always include freedom, happiness, joy, and contentment – and sometimes tired legs and sweat, too!”
Indeed, emotional well-being is one of the main benefits of the programme, not least for those who’ve spent years in prison, who find the fresh air and sunlight incredibly healing. "I will never forget a woman on her first ride after being discharged from prison crying as she rode down a hill,” says programme manager Al Sharrock. “I asked what was wrong and she responded, ‘It’s just that the wind on my face feels like freedom.’"
Cycling regularly in a group helps the women to build social health too. “Riding together several times a week with the same ride leader creates familiarity between staff and programme participants, and allows them to build relationships in a safe and positive environment,” says Amy. “The relationships built between clients and other riders provide a path to restoring confidence and relative comfort in social settings, while simultaneously breaking down stereotypes, stigmas, or preconceived notions that are often held toward individuals with histories of incarceration or addiction.”
Then, of course, there are the practical advantages – including employment opportunities – that come with being able to ride and owning a bike. Programme participants use their bikes as an affordable way to get to meetings and appointments, several women have gone on to work as bike couriers at a local laundry service and two women, including Ebony, are former participants now employed with Gearing Up as ride leaders.
“I remember someone telling me, ‘If you do what you always did, you get what you always got,’” says Ebony. “So I knew it was time for a change, time to challenge myself and do something else. I knew that if I didn’t repeat what didn’t work, I’d come out on top. Gearing Up was a way to change my behaviour, and to actively participate in my recovery and in my life.”
Find out more at: gearing-up.org