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A bike-riding course for women in Santiago.
Credit: Pamela Sepúlveda/IPS
Accents
Promoting Women’s Empowerment on Two Wheels
By Pamela Sepúlveda *

Riding a bike requires balance, self-confidence and self-control, qualities that women need to claim their place in public spaces, says a group of feminist cyclists in the Chilean capital.

SANTIAGO, Mar 5 (Tierramérica).- What does riding a bike have to do with women’s rights? According to the Chilean feminist group Macleta, which promotes cycling and a gender perspective on public transport, a bicycle is a powerful tool for social change.

Less than five percent of residents of the Chilean capital use bicycles for transportation (as opposed to recreation), and of that small minority, only 20 percent are women, according to a survey on urban transport in Greater Santiago published by the Ministry of Transport and Telecommunications, based on data from 2001 and 2006.

"In my house, riding a bicycle was something only for boys and men," explained Magali Lagos, who has decided at the age of 46 to learn to ride a bicycle.

She first heard about the women’s bike-riding courses offered by Macleta two years ago, but was afraid of "making a fool of myself." She finally worked up the nerve to give the classes a try just a few weeks ago.

"It’s hard to feel confident when you don’t know how, it’s pretty difficult," she confessed to Tierramérica. She is not afraid of being on the street, but she is afraid of failing. She views it as a personal challenge, and if she succeeds, she plans to buy herself her first bicycle ever.

As well as serving as a means of transportation and recreation, "when you ride a bicycle, it’s like freedom itself,” declared Lagos.

It is this freedom that is the ultimate goal of Macleta, which is currently offering its seventh series of classes aimed at teaching women to conquer their fears and move around the city with a sense of ownership.

As Macleta coordinator Sofía López told Tierramérica, the group’s raison d’être is "the empowerment of women through bicycles."

More than a hundred women have now taken part in Macleta’s courses, ranging in age from 18 to 68.

Some did not know how to ride a bicycle when they started the classes, either because they had never had one, or because they had suffered bad bike-related experiences in childhood.

Others "knew how to ride a bike, but didn’t dare to use it to get around because they were frightened of cars, or felt that they didn’t have the necessary skills," explained López. "A lot of women want to ride a bike, but don’t think they can manage it."

This is why one of the organization’s areas of work is research. Using data and information about women, their fears and their motivations, Macleta is able to design teaching methodologies and strategies to successfully encourage them to overcome those fears.

“Learn to pedal" is the first level, for complete beginners, while "Get off the sidewalk” is aimed at women who know how to ride a bicycle but are too frightened to use a bicycle to get around the city.

"We believe that a bicycle, more than an end in itself, becomes a means," said López. "A woman who starts to ride around on a bicycle is happier, she is more aware of the public space around her, she wants to occupy it, interact with other people… it promotes a kind of empowerment."

Cycling is also a highly economical means of transportation, "and that also helps us contribute to greater justice, because on a bicycle we are all equal and we all move around the same way, and this ultimately benefits those who have less to invest in a means of transportation," she stressed.

Transportation and its association with the severe air pollution in Santiago are among the main problems facing this city of seven million people.

The 2007 inauguration of the public-private Transantiago system spurred a wave of protests, because it failed to meet the real transportation needs of the city’s population or to tackle the problem of pollution, in addition to the high cost of fares, roughly 1.5 dollars.

Against this backdrop, bicycles offer enormous benefits for the city: they create no pollution, they help decrease traffic congestion, and they are silent. These advantages are recognized by the authorities.

In his year-end report last December, Transport and Telecommunications Minister Pedro Pablo Errázuriz announced plans to promote bicycle use, including the interconnection of bike lanes to create a 200-km network in Santiago and smaller networks in other cities, in order to "strengthen the use of this means of transportation that is non-polluting and accessible to everyone."

But Macleta takes the issue further, insisting that public transportation policies must address the specific needs and demands of women, because women "are a distinct type of transportation user, like the elderly and children," said López.

There are clear gender-related differences in mobility, she explained, noting that 40 percent of "trips" by women are made on foot, and more than 60 percent of the time they are moving from one location to another outside of the usual peak transportation hours. This implies that much of the time, women "are not traveling for work-related purposes, but rather for reasons related to domestic tasks or their responsibilities as caregivers in the home," she concluded.

* IPS contributor

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