An Indian bicycle program is having a revolutionary impact on the lives of young girls

girls walking their bicycles to school
Village girls walk with bicycles they received from their school under a government scheme in Malancha, South 24 Pargana district, India. AP Photo/Bikas Das

When suffragist leader Susan B. Anthony saw a bicycle, it wasn’t just a way to get around; it was a tool for self-liberation. 

“I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world,” Anthony said in 1896. “It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”

More than a century later, it looks like Anthony’s assessment was right. A program designed to close the education gap among girls in Bihar, India, had tremendous success. Since then Nishith Prakash, professor of public policy and economics at Northeastern University, and a team of researchers helped bring the program to Zambia as part of another successful trial. With hopes of bringing similar programs to half a dozen more countries, Prakash says bicycles could be a powerful tool for public policy and female empowerment.

“We find huge effects on female empowerment, and we also find that for these girls [in Zambia], attendance went up by 29% to 45%. These girls walk, by the way, 110 minutes to school, one way. That went down by 35 to 36 minutes. Coming to school on time … went up by 66%.”

headshot of Nishith Prakash
Northeastern University Photo

Developing countries have taken steps to reduce the gender gap in education, but Prakash and his team noted that several barriers still exist for girls across the world. Cost of school, distance to school, safety, lack of agency and even deep-rooted cultural norms can all stand in the way for girls getting an education on par with their male counterparts.

With Bihar’s state-run Mukhhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojana starting to make dents in the gender divide, Prakash started measuring the impacts of the program in 2010. Launched in 2006, the program provided every girl in grade nine in the state with money for the purpose of buying a bicycle to commute to school.

Prakash and his team found that the Bihar bicycle program improved enrollment by 32% and reduced the corresponding gender gap by 40%. They also found an 18% increase in the number of girls who appeared for the high stakes secondary school certificate exam and a 12% increase in the number of girls who graduated between 2006 and 2010. Prakash and his team even found that the program led girls to express more of a desire to delay marriage and pregnancy.

The program’s success was undeniable, and it led Prakash to look at ways of adapting the model for other countries. 

“Zambia was one that really fit the bill because World Bicycle Relief had a local office there, so they would actually assemble bicycles there and had distribution,” Prakash says.

Starting in 2015, Prakash partnered with several nonprofits, including World Bicycle Relief, UBS Optimus Foundation, Innovation for Poverty Action and Zambia’s Ministry of General Education to kickstart the Bicycle Empowerment and Education Program in 100 Zambian schools. As part of the randomized control trial, some girls received bicycles with a minor cost to cover replacement parts, some received bicycles with all costs paid for by the program and some did not receive bicycles at all.

Similar to India, Prakash and his team found the program had significant effects on enrollment, graduation, absenteeism, punctuality and empowerment. 

After a year, average commuting time had decreased by 35%, late arrival by 66% and absenteeism by 27%. Similar improvements, along with enrollment numbers, attendance and punctuality were seen two, three and even four years after the program had been rolled out.

It also made the journey to and from school safer.

“A lot of these girls are sexually harassed on the way to school, and that went down by 22%,” Prakash says.

More than that, Prakash says these bicycles became a tool for empowering young girls in a meaningful way. Girls who received bicycles during the trial reported feeling more in control and that they had a greater sense of their potential to succeed in life. They were more willing to socialize, help a friend or participate in clubs and had more open communication with their parents.

Next, Prakash is looking to adapt the program for even more countries––and he’s not the only one interested in its international prospects.

“This study has been picked up by the US Aid and World Bicycle Relief, and [we received] around $3.9 million to scale it up in five or six countries in Africa,” Prakash says. “This was the big policy outcome.”

Cody Mello-Klein is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @Proelectioneer.