Four tall, athletic ladies are easy to spot in the crowd with their cycling gear, helmets, and bike glasses. They have sweat profusely after several hours of biking and hiking up the hills, and are now resting quietly at the side of a road. While two of them are leaving for a bike repair shop, I start speaking with the other two. They are Dutch ladies pedaling from Indonesia to Holland for a cause: to foster awareness of women’s rights. They embarked on their journey in September 2014 with a pair of third-hand, in-tandem bikes, riding an average of 75 kilometers everyday and meeting with many women’s organizations, government officers, and consulates as well as locals in each country they visited. They are observing common problems for women, trying to understand the mentality behind them, and profiling some of the extraordinary women they meet on the road. By the end of the journey, they will have completed over 14,000 kilometers and crossed over 22 countries in 400 days.
“On our graduation year, our classmates were working only for their resumes. We wanted to do something for others,” says Carlijn Bettink, 25, the president of R4WR and a medical anthropology and sociology graduate. She and her three childhood friends Lidewij Ponjee, Monique van der Veeken, and Sophie van Hoof took a different tack and established together a women’s rights organization called R4WR (Ride for Women’s Rights) that specializes in gender inequality, family planning, and education after they got their Master’s degrees in 2013.1
“We all have different backgrounds but when we sat together, we understood that women’s rights are a priority for all of us,” Bettink says. “Many women are lacking the possibilites we have in our home country and they’re not as fortunate as us.”
The R4WR girls already had an annual tradition of travelling together since they were 14, which continued even after they left for different cities to pursue higher education. That’s how they came up with an idea of a long journey. They had a rigorous period of planning their trip where they scheduled meetings with different women’s rights organizations and consulates, looking for sponsors, and dealing with all kinds of travel arrangements. They chose their starting point as Jakarta, Indonesia, and followed a route via Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe, as it allows the longest distance to bike. However, Lidewij Ponjee, 24, the secretary of R4WR and a Dutch language and literature graduate, adds that is the main but not the only reason: “There are many interesting countries on our route with different women’s rights problems and many closed societies where we want to get a better understanding of how women live in these areas.” The team have so far passed through Singapore, Vietnam, Myanmar, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Georgia.
In the past year on the road, they have witnessed different problems women are facing. In Nepal, they saw that boys are much preferred to girls, and that girls are lacking education. In Azerbaijan, they learned about the increase in child brides. They found out that migrant domestic workers were treated very badly in Singapore. However, in all the problems and hardships women faced in their lives, there is one common theme they heard in every country and in every language: violence against women.
“Historical backgrounds, culture, and religion play a role in struggles in women face in their country,” says Bettink. “And change does not come overnight.”
However, the group were also able to meet with prominent women and different women’s rights activists. They profiled some of the extraordinary women on the road, like Hameeda Hossein from Bangladesh, who has dedicated her life to fight for human rights in her country. She is the founding member of Ain O Salish Kendra, a leading NGO that specializes in collecting testimonies and providing legal perspectives on human rights in the country. What is more interesting is that her passion has also passed to her daughter who has become a human rights lawyer. In Turkey, they met with We Will Stop Women Murders, an organization that focuses on high numbers of women murders in the country and fights to stop them through changes to the legal system. The personal stories can be both brutal and inspiring.
“I see that every woman has potential to achieve anything they want,” Ponjee concludes.
All four of the R4WR women are inspired by the stories of women’s rights activists and hope to inspire more women with their profiles. They aim to publish 40 stories on their website by the end of their journey.
Ponjee, a tall, cheerful brunette who has gained a lot of muscle since they started their trip, adds that the physical challenge of cycling over 14,000 kilometers in 400 days is a way to attract people’s attention. Actually, this is their first long biking trip: “We’re coming from a cycling nation, but no one of us have travelled abroad with a bike before,” Ponjee says.
At first, they didn’t make a specific connection between cycling and women. However, once they started their journey, they have seen that cycling has also a symbolic meaning.
“We travel independently, we carry all our own stuff including a tent, food, and water. We have learned to solve a lot of technical issues by watching and doing the work of the professional bicycle repairmen. We have been empowered both physically and emotionally as a woman during this journey,” points out Bettink.
Cycling is also a way to gain independence for women in the countries they visited. Bettink remarks: “In Iran it was forbidden for women to cycle until recently and it is not quite common now as well, but lifting the ban is a positive sign of change.”
The women prefer staying with locals instead of hotels, and sometimes they stayed at police or fire stations or at restaurants where they slept on their mattresses. During these long nights, they were able to discuss women’s rights with men, and rarely with a single female police officer or firefighter.
Although they haven’t yet faced any security problems, they met with many prejudgements expressed in comments such as, “You are travelling just with the four of you? No men? Very brave.”
However, lots of women supported their journey, and some of them even cycled with them for a while and said “they are encouraged and inspired by it.”
The team mentions Turkmenistan as the most mysterious and unexplored country of their journey, and they are stunned by what they saw there. They had the chance to meet with UNFPA and UN Women’s Turkmenistan office, where they learned more about women’s lives in thr country. The society’s tribal structure has changed under Soviet rule, and women became active members of society. Nowadays, women have many rights on paper, but as the goverment has a closed policy, there is hardly any data or research on women’s rights.
“Domestic violence in a country like Turkmenistan is still a taboo, and you’re not supposed to tell what happens behind the doors.”
The women have also observed that gender inequality is absolutely not only a women’s issue, and that both men and women should be involved in this process. In Kosovo, they met with a project of CARE International that focuses on men instead of women, called the Young Men Inititative. Its main goal is to change the attitude of the youth by breaking stereotypes about men and women. They started with the campaign “Be a Man” in 2009, which has continued to grow ever since. One of their recent projects has the motto, “Be a man…and a cook,” where boys are being taught how to cook, and they then serve their homemade dishes to local families and community members.
The Dutch team is still on the road in the Balkans, although the countdown for the final days has almost begun. They have become even more motivated as the finish line comes into sight, and are pulling out all the stops to cross it on time. They hope to arrive in their native Amsterdam on October 31st where there will be a special “Welcome Back” party given for them with the beer and typical Dutch cuisine that they’ve been longing for.
Bettink already refers to the trip as a once in a lifetime experience. Ponjee is giggling and adds, “this is an unforgettable, sweaty experience.” They all look forward to spending more time in their home village and resting for a while. Nevertheless, they will continue to work in the field of women’s rights. They have already started planning their talks and lectures about their journey in universities and public spaces, and hope their journey will inspire more people to take action on women’s rights.