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Engines of empowerment: Indian women’s epic 10 country tour for girls’ rights

 

"It was a nightmare, even thinking of it now," says Dr Sarika Mehta. "We were on a mountain path so narrow that we wouldn't have been able to park our bikes and stand beside them. It was almost night and it was totally foggy, our lights were not working and we were all wet due to heavy rains."

Dr Mehta and the three women accompanying her on an epic 10-country, 10,000km, 39-day journey to raise awareness for girls’ rights were in a Bhutanese jungle, where the question, “Is this a road or not?” came up often.

Bhutan was the second stop on the itinerary of the four members of the Biking Queens, a group of about 50 female riders based in Gujarat, India, who combine their love of riding with advocacy to promote girls’ rights and health. Along with Bhutan, the women’s tour brought them to Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and India.

The Biking Queens were riding an average of nine or 10 hours a day and persevered through often punishing terrain, bike breakdowns and bureaucratic snafus to spread the message of “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” – save the girl child, educate the girl child, a campaign led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The prime minister’s initiative aims to promote education as a means of addressing the India’s widening male to female ratio – there were 102.4 males per 100 females under six and below in the 1961 Indian census compared to 108.9 in 2011. In Gujarat, the home state of the prime minister and the Biking Queens, the number is even higher, at 112.

“They think that a boy can work more than girls,” says Dr Mehta. “This is the mindset that has been fixed by the people around us and that has been carried forward.”

The Biking Queens’ choice of transport is in itself a response to such sentiments. “It's a very important statement,” Dr Mehta says. “It's a symbol of power.”

 

The Queens regularly travel into rural areas of Gujarat to spread their message and to provide information on, education, health and access to basic services in rural areas.

Impressed by their efforts, Mr Modi asked the women to spread the message of the importance of educating girls and promoting gender equality beyond India’s borders. “Girls are not burdens to parents or anybody – this is the strong message our prime minister gave us [and he] wanted us to reach as many people as we could,” Dr Mehta says.

In South and West Asia, 80% of out-of-school girls are unlikely to ever start school compared to only 16% of out-of-school boys. In Nepal, for example, the female adult literacy rate is 48.8%. (UNESCO Institute for Statistics). Deeply entrenched cultural norms in remote communities further lessen the likelihood of women pursuing an education. Promoting gender equality is a global priority area for UNESCO, and one that factors into several of the organization's educational initiatives.

Dr Mehta's fellow rider, architect Yugma Desai, 27, says that empowering girls through education is a message relevant throughout South and Southeast Asia and beyond.

"We have seen what the situation around us is for girls in India and I have seen the work of Dr Mehta and what she's done to help them to take them out of this situation,” she says. “It's important for society, not just for India or Asian countries, but for the entire world – awareness should be there.”

Bolstering that assertion is the World Atlas of Gender Equality in Education which details how every country is to some extent affected by gender inequality in education

 

PUSHING BEYOND BARRIERS

The Biking Queens began their trek on June 4 in Gujarat where 15,000 people came to wave chequered flags to see them off – a Guinness World Record.

Despite the month the four had spent planning the route, the actual conditions they faced on the road veered far from expectations. “Some of these were places were not mapped on GPS,” she tells UNESCO Bangkok. “We did check the conditions and expected certain weather conditions but it was the opposite. Some places that we thought we could pass in five or six hours took eleven.”

Dr Mehta says the journey brought “extreme conditions where we have to make immediate decisions.” Nature did not put up the only roadblocks. While crossing the border into Thailand from Cambodia, the women were told that there had been a change in regulations and their permits to bring the bikes into Thailand were no longer valid. This meant several hours stuck in between the two countries.

However, Dr Mehta says, every obstacle overcome strengthened the group and the potency of their advocacy for female empowerment.

“The journey itself was a learning experience for us, how we could come out of this, and not just for us, but for everyone: everyone has their inner power or strength. You just need to come out of your comfort zone,” she says. “This journey is about a journey within our own selves. Every stage we pass takes us inside ourselves – we're learning what capabilities we have.”

The four riders who made the trek are all working professionals: Dr Mehta, 40, a psychologist, researcher and social advocate, was joined on the expedition by Desai, as well as Durriya Tapia, 36, a travel agent, and Ms Khyati Desai, 31, a human resources professional.

“When we mentioned this plan early on, the first reaction we got was negative – these countries are not safe. You are not capable of handling yourself because you are women.”

The Biking Queens ignored these warnings and found the people they met on the road to be friendly and helpful. In rural villages, in particular, Dr Mehta says the reception was particularly warm, especially among young girls

And it was a particularly potent symbol on some of the more remote legs of the journey.

"It was eye opening for the girls out there to see us, 'Women can do this?' If a mother can do this [three out of the four Biking Queens are moms], why not a girl in a village?” she says.

Dr Mehta says that the Biking Queens plan a second phase of their initiative during which they’ll spend more time in villages, building on the initial contacts they made on their 2016 trek. She says that phase will likely begin after February of 2017.

Her message, she says, is “not for the men, but the women: All of the power is within you… Come out of that frame of mind which others have set for you.”

 

by Noel Boivin



17.10.2016