88bikes’ Asha 2012 Program: Empowering Girls with Bicycles

Sometimes, the solution is as simple as a bicycle.

Girls who stay in school for seven or more years marry four years later and have two fewer children. Countries where women’s share of seats in political bodies is greater than 30% are more inclusive, egalitarian and democratic. Two-thirds of the 130 million children worldwide who are not in school are girls.

There is an indisputable need for investing in and empowering women. Given the global scope of the issue, that task is daunting. Yet a solution as simple as a bicycle can make – and is making – a meaningful, measurable difference.

This year, 88bikes Foundation, a nonprofit organization that gives bikes to kids in developing countries, is launching its sixth and most ambitious project, Asha 2012. With the help of the Nell Newman Foundation, Asha 2012 will endow bicycles to thousands of girls around the world, from Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia.

The project was inspired by a bicycle endowment 2010 that took place at the Bihar Ashram in India, a shelter for girls who are survivors of sexual slavery. Sheltered by Free the Slaves for several months before reintegrating back into their communities this ashram provides a safe haven and a place to transition back into society after a gruesome reality. At Bihar, the 88bikes team met Asha. After six months at the ashram, Asha, which means “hope” in Sanskrit, reintegrated back into the same community from which she was sold. The story was so moving, she later became the namesake for the organization’s current project.

The goal for Asha 2012 is to provide bicycles to girls who have endured and transcended similar situations of slavery and abuse, in turn empowering them to take part in their communities, attend school and grow as strong women.

“We’ve found that girls tend to appreciate the bikes more and demonstrate greater maturity [owning the bicycles]. Women and girls deal endure and transcend tremendous abuse and unequal rights, especially in the developing world. We believe focusing on girls has the greatest overall impact on the community. We want to do everything we can to foster leadership and healing among heroic girls who’ve risen above challenging circumstances beyond their control,” says 88bikes co-founder Dan Austin.

Bicycles can be an excellent catalyst for empowering women, in all kinds of communities, as writer and cycling advocate Eleanor Blue points out. “Bicycling is a great economic equalizer especially for women. Women worldwide tend to have more domestic work than men, and bicycling when it can be an alternative to walking and transit is often safer, cheaper and makes things like school and working outside of the home possible where they might not otherwise be.”

Not only a tool for economic and social empowerment, having access to a bicycle often achieves a very simple, but powerful, goal: inducing a smile. “A bicycle is a tool of happiness and autonomy. With a bike, your world instantly expands,” says Austin.

At a first glance a bicycle might not appear to be the key tool for solving international development challenges, but consider all the elements that it brings together – transportation, education, health, etc. – and it becomes clear that at a grassroots level, two wheels could be one of our most effective ways forward when it comes to empowering women and making significant and long-lasting change.

“The 88bikes model is refreshing and effective,” says Nell Newman of the Nell Newman Foundation. “It empowers women though a grassroots and somewhat radical approach. Bikes are such a fantastic, low cost way to expand an individual’s freedom – freedom to move, freedom to do commerce – and receiving one will make a profound difference to these girls who have transcended so much already. We are happy to be supporting their efforts.”

If we are to bridge the gender and economic gap around the world, it will be imperative that individuals and organizations consider programs like these, as they deal with larger, more complex equality issues on a personal level. “Asha, our namesake for this project said that the bicycle ‘helps me feel equal to men,'” says Austin.

That isn’t just a feeling, it’s a reality. “Gender and equality starts with children. Often girls in many places are not always able to go to school, especially if they have to travel a long distance, and bicycling can bridge the gap, quite literally, between male and female education,” says Blue.

88bikes is currently accepting sponsorships of $88 per bike for Asha 2012. Donations can be made online at www.88bikes.org. Donors are asked to email a picture of themselves, to be presented with the bike. In return, 88bikes sends back a photo of the child with her new bike and her donor’s picture.

Images: 88bikes, Lynsey Dyer, 88bikes

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.