Bicycles Liberate Women in Zimbabwe

In some parts of the world overcrowded, informal public transportation leave women in vulnerable conditions. Photo by GrahamKing.

In an article last week for the Guardian’s Bike Blog, Jane Madembo relived her experience as a public transit and bicycle commuter in Zimbabwe. In the article, Madembo explains that public transport was scarce in the low-density, suburban areas where she had to travel for work, leaving her and other commuters to rely on inadequate and overcapacity transport methods.

“In general, transport was a daily nightmare. Buses, public and private (licensed estate cars or minibuses known locally as emergency taxis), were always piled to over capacity with passengers,” Madembo explains. “People stood at roadsides waiting for any form of transport to take them to work.”

But worries for Madembo and other female commuters were not limited to a lack of transport option. The informal and overcrowded state of these transport options left female commuters in a vulnerable condition, fending off unwanted advances from men.

“I sat tight on my seat while being interrogated about my personal life: was I married? No. Then a smile, followed by ‘do you live alone?’ Yes, then a wider smile. ‘Can I come and pick you up after work?’ and so on. Sometimes a hand moved from the steering wheel and found its way to my thigh. A few times I yelled at the driver to let me off. Other times I pretended that I had reached my destination. […] Some men took detours to prolong time with me – their prey – for the purpose of completing the seduction. For some women these rides ended in rape. Fortunately, that never happened to me. But no woman was safe on Zimbabwe’s roads.”

Dealing with the harsh realities of the informal transport system in Zimbabwe, Madembo was left to acquire personal tactics to ensure her safety, like examining the faces of the drivers and passengers to make snap judgments.

But everything changed for Madembo when she saw a Swedish woman cycling down a local road.

“She was Katrina, a Swedish woman whose husband worked at the University of Zimbabwe,” Madembo explains. “When Katrina and her husband left Zimbabwe, she left me her beautiful white bicycle as a gift. I was so excited that I cycled to work, even though I was in what one might call a learning stage. During the first weeks I kept off the main roads, fortunate that the pedestrian sidewalk was wide enough to ride most of the way.”

Madembo’s new transportation mode drew a lot of attention from fellow commuters, leading some cars drivers to slow down, roll down their windows, ask why she is cycling and offer rides. But such attention did not faze Madembo. “I was no longer a hostage to religion, tradition or men. I was free. On my bicycle I felt like I was in a room of my own,” she explains.

Read Jane Madembo’s full article here.

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