Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Biking as a Tool for Women Empowerment

Woman on Bike participant Alba Kunadu Sumprim before the ride.
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 In Ghana’s northern regions bicycles are used as a necessary means of transportation, but in the capital city of Accra, this is not the case. Cycling in the city can not only be dangerous, but attached to social stigmas – especially for women cyclists.

This is what Alba Kunadu Sumprim, along with ten others, discovered as participants in the Woman on Bike workshop, which is also part of the Prêt-à-partager art exhibition. The purpose is to explore the limits and possibilities of bikes in an urban West African atmosphere with particular significance to biking as a tool of female empowerment.

Sumprim is a British born Ghanaian and a participant in the workshop. Sumprim says back in England, cycling was a key method of transport for her and part of her daily routine. She has spent the past decade living in Ghana and says this workshop gave her the courage and confidence to get on a bike for the first time since her arrival ten years ago.

“When I first started I was a little scared,” she says. “It’s a matter of confidence… as I became more confident I realized it was my right to be on the road with everybody else.”

Based on her experience riding in the city, Sumprim says she has felt social discrimination as a female cyclist, stating one man she met while riding told her that as far as he was concerned, the only women who should be on bicycles are villagers, women from the north or foreigners, and Ghanaian women in Accra, should not be on bicycles.

“It is all about status – and riding a bike says that you are poor. That is the perception. I think there is also a gender thing, we have very typical ideas of what women can do and what women can’t do,” Sumprim says.

This is the type of discrimination the workshop aims to eliminate. Sandrine Micosse-Aikins, co-creator of Prêt-à-partager art exhibition in collaboration with the German Institute of Foreign Cultural Relations, says the initiative is related to ideas of freedom and Pan African Empowerment.

As a German-Ghanaian, she says female empowerment is an important issue for her and feels biking is something people in the city aren’t practicing and aren’t claiming as their right.

“[It's] about promoting biking as a practice available for women, especially Ghanaian women,” Micosse-Aikins says.

The women involved in the workshop agree the perception of female cyclists in Accra and the discrimination towards them is not something that is going to vanish overnight. It is, however, something they believe they can work towards and plan to continue.

Zohra Opoku is a German-Ghanaian, avid cyclist, artist and coordinator of the Woman on Bike workshop. Opoku says this workshop is just the beginning and they have started to think of actions to strengthen their goal. It begins with public interaction, she says.

“In terms of empowerment it is something that has to grow,” Opuku says. “I think this is good. People will see more bikes on the streets because of our workshop.”

In addition to the empowerment associated with female riders, Sumprim states that although the workshop is focused on women and female empowerment, it has potential to extend into the greater community.

According to her, less traffic congestion, decreased pollution, lower economic demand for oil and overall health and fitness are benefits of the cycling initiative.

“It is Woman on Bike because it is a novelty, but society in general can be empowered… it is actually a huge thing for society as a whole,” Sumprim says.

From Intention to Interpretation

First posted on Journalists for Human Rights: Field Notes

Reflecting back - written August 28th, 2011 

View from Kokemlemle Guest House in Accra, Ghana.
On the roof of our guesthouse in Kokemlemle, we sit and enjoy the African breeze that comes with the setting of the sun beginning around 5:30pm. In the company of our local friend, we sip Ghanaian produced Gulder beer and reflect on day’s events.

We are soon joined by a fellow from Germany and a young lady from Sweden. Staying at a guesthouse we often meet travelers, mainly volunteers, from around the world. The gentleman is traveling Ghana and Togo for a month, visiting his brother and will be joined by his family. The young lady arrived in Accra the night before to begin her short-term volunteer work at an orphanage outside of the capital city.

“Welcome to Ghana, what do you think so far?” I ask the slim blonde woman.

Her eyes widened and her grin lit up her face.

“Thing’s here are crazy! Everything is unorganized – it is so different than Sweden,” she replies.
Circle Overpass - leading to Kaneshie Market in Accra, Ghana.

Typical view of Accra traffic. 

Commuters Crash

First Posted on Journalists for Human Rights: Field Notes

The evening was dark and the air crisp as we embarked on our journey to Accra from Ghana’s Western Region. It was not much past 7:00 pm but the quiet, urban roads made it seem as though the whole of the country would be asleep.

The route home was anything but smooth, potholes causing our tro-tro to veer from one side to the other. The vehicle remained silent despite being at full capacity, including three passengers per four rows, plus the small child strapped to his mothers back. We were approximately two hours into our seven hour journey and I had finally managed to reached the point of dosing off.

As my head rested on my hand against the window, I was Instantly and abruptly brought to attention. I was temporarily blinded by the headlights of oncoming traffic as we were forced between the two lanes of the highway.
Initially, I was overwhelmed with confusion until the realization sunk it; we were going to crash.

Our tro-tro after the crash.
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