Life cycleWomen gain mobility, freedom, economic opportunity and a sense of benign belonging on a bicycle
Every morning Makhumaya Tamang, 65, used to pass a group of middle-aged women cycling in Jawalakhel, and gazed longingly at them.
One day, she mustered the courage to ask the women why they were cycling and found out that they were getting bicycling lessons. She signed up without hesitation.
“I had never before touched a bicycle before, and I thought it was too difficult to learn,” says Tamang who is originally from Ramechhap.
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It took a while for her to learn to balance and pedal, and came close to giving up. Her kurta-suruwal would get snared in the chain, making her fall. So she started wearing a t-shirt and pants which she had never done before.
Tamang was a street vendor before the pandemic, and her family and especially her son disapproved of not just her new attire, but also the newfound passion for bicycling at her age.
But Tamang did not allow what people said to deter her, and finally after three months she could pedal around the streets with confidence. Now, her son posts videos and photos of her cycling on Facebook, much to her delight.
Tamang is one of the over 1,200 women in Patan who have learnt to use bicycles in the last two years as part of an initiative by a local women’s social media group called महिला को लागी महिला (Women for Women) which became active during the second Covid-19 lockdown in 2021.
Many of the women were involved in small street side businesses, and lost their income during the pandemic. The group initially tried out meditation and Vipasana, but soon realised that limited mobility was one of the major challenges the women faced.
Taking charge of cycling lessons was Maheshwari Bista, who used to head the women’s development wing of Lalitpur Metropolis.
“We used to call women for all kinds of training programs at the municipality but they always came 2-3 hours late,” Bista recalls. “When we asked them why, they said they had to wait for a relative to give them a lift.”
Bista was convinced that bicycling would be a cost-effective, eco-friendly and empowering initiative for the women.
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In the beginning there were only a few participants. Rabita Shrestha from the municipality joined up just to motivate others even though she was just recovering from Covid-19.
As word spread, more joined the cycling campaign and other municipalities and wards in Kathmandu Valley have also started their own training. The group wants to take this initiative to all 77 districts.
“It has been nearly two years and we have now created this community of bicyclists,” says Shrestha. "But more importantly, our modest initiative has made the women independent, they are no longer confined in their homes. They do not have to depend on others to take their produce to market.”
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Shiban Maharjan, 49, has been making handicraft products, incense, candies, detergents and woollen wear for many years. But after two years of learning cycling, she is now also doing the deliveries to clients herself and her business has grown.
“I make my own living now I do not have to ask my husband for money,” adds Maharjan who learnt to cycle within two days and had bought a bicycle on the third day, surprising everyone in her family. “Through cycling, I have gained new friendships at this point in my life.”
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Gyani Shova Awale was a sickly child who never ventured out. But learning to cycle has rejuvenated the 48-year-old. “I have been exploring Patan after I learnt cycling, there isn’t a neighbourhood I haven’t been to,” she says. "My health problems have also disappeared.”
Cycling lessons have also meant real enthusiasm for the sport for some with many others having participated in friendly rallies as well as competitive tournaments like Kathmandu Kora.
Jamuna Maharjan, also 48, has been to Nepalganj, Pokhara and other major towns to participate in cycling events. A housekeeper at The Inn Patan, she also uses a cycle for her daily commute to and from home.
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“Before cycling, we were like a frog in a well, we knew nothing much of the world outside but we are now much more empowered now,” she says.
Lalitpur’s cycling lessons are continuing and more women are joining in. Part of the training is also safety, since Kathmandu’s traffic can be dangerous for bicyclists.
“Teaching cycling is only a part of the activity, we also train them in safety techniques, and we also lobby for a smart city with cycling lanes,” says Nisha Shrestha, an award-winning filmmaker, who is also behind the initiative.
She adds: “We were trying to develop skills and entrepreneurship among women. But along the way they also learnt how to cycle, and that has been a bonus.”