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UGANDA: Bicycles at the Heart of Empowerment Scheme for Rural Women

Justin Hyatt

BUHOMA, Uganda, Mar 23 2011 (IPS) - The bicycle has become a symbol of hope for hundreds of women in Uganda who have been trained in repairing one of life’s favorite transport modes.

More than two hundred women from around the Bwindi National Park, in the country’s southwest, have been taking part in a two-week course on bicycle repair, organised by the group Ride 4 a Woman.

The idea of the workshop is simple: to help disadvantaged women gain new, marketable skills and at the same time promote an environmentally-friendly form of travel, namely, cycling. It’s part of the Social Bike Business Programme, now being developed in Uganda.

The model originates with One Street, an international cycle advocacy organisation located in the United States, in Prescott, Arizona. The idea has spread to Los Angeles and further afield to places such as Budapest, Hungary and Prague, Czech Republic.

For the women who participated in the Uganda workshop, it was an eye opener to the multiple possibilities of the bicycle.

The new face of bicycle mechanics

Feredisa Kamahanga, one of the participants said, “I am very excited about this. For the first time I can now remove a tyre from a bicycle and put it back.”

She added, “I have gained training as a bike mechanic … and I can’t wait to fix my first bicycle!”

Sue Knaup, director of One Street, came to Uganda to hold the workshop and said she “was impressed at how quickly the women picked up on the idea.”

Even though many of the women had never cycled before, Ride 4 a Woman has big plans for them. “Next is job training, which will give the women professional skills to earn a much better income and hopefully break out of the cycle of dawn-to-dark work,” explained Knaup.

In Uganda, women are often discouraged from mechanical activities or from riding a bicycle. Avenues such as this venture offer new territory for the women to cover.

Big plans ahead

Ride 4 a Woman’s executive director Denis Rubalema has big plans for the project. “We have already begun construction in the first phase of the women’s centre on their property, which is due for completion in November.”

The centre will house a venue for training courses, a bike repair station, a bike shop, and eventually a bike manufacturing section. It will also be the hub of all local activity.

Rubalema believes that the space will create a lively social atmosphere for the women. In addition to bikes, the women will also engage in other skills learning such as crafts, cooking and tailoring.

“The project will have a profound impact on the livelihoods of the women and their families,” says Rubalema. Women will now be able to earn money repairing bikes, but they can also use bicycles as taxis, as well as to transport goods to the market.

According to a 2008 World Bank report titled “Africa Development Indicators”, Uganda not only has the world’s youngest population but also the highest youth unemployment in the world. Statistics for women’s unemployment are hard to come by, but unemployment among youth aged 15-24 stood at 83 percent.

Tourism plans

Tourism also features prominently as part of the centre’s grand plan. Guided bike rides are offered to tourists visiting the national park or venturing into the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

The area is known for its endangered mountain gorillas and has been described as one of the most biologically diverse areas on earth. Tourists also frequently buy local handcrafted products.

Tourism is the country’s fourth largest foreign currency earner and provides thousands of people with employment.

The Ugandan Wildlife Authority is supporting the project, as they actively promote the bike tours and cooperate with Ride 4 a Woman. They are also creating an exciting trail for cyclists to use in the forest.

The government is also supportive of these programmes, which figure into the development goals, especially as women are at the heart of development in the country. The local and district authorities have also come out in support for the Social Bike Business Programme.

Knaup has also helped Ride 4 a Woman secure a wholesale account for quality bike parts since her return home to the U.S. This is the first time that such bike parts are entering Uganda. Given the generally low quality of bikes available in the country, this will come as a boon to both ordinary citizens and to the women in the Bwindi area who are mastering the trade.

Rubalema underscores the high potential that the bicycle has in store for the programme and for the women of southwestern Uganda. “Our biggest dream is to see the women in the area become empowered women.

“After all, that is how our mission reads: to empower women using bicycles.”

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