Photo Of The Day

Photo by Mia Collis

Photo by Mia Collis

In Nairobi Slums

Girl Boxers Learn How to Fight For Themselves

Alfred ?Priest? Analo ? a women rights activist and boxing coach ? is the founder of Boxgirls, an organization Kenya established in 2007. The organization started because of rapid increase in rape cases registered in the Eastlands, especially in the slums.

Kenyan photographer?Mia Collis first impression of?Boxgirls, a Nairobi program that teaches young girls to box, was one of a ?cacophony of sound.? Inside a tiny office in the heart of the dense Kariobangi slum, Boxgirls Alfred Analo and Collis fought to hear each other?s words over rock music and traffic noise from outside.

It?s not often you see a girl throw a punch in a floor-length ball gown. But living in the poverty of Korogocho, Kenya, you wear whatever you have to boxing class.

Every day, young women from the marginalized communities of northern Nairobi are taught self-defense at BoxGirls, an organization set up in 2007 by Analo Anjere (known as Priest) after he overheard two girls say they wanted to ?box like boys.?

?I started the organization due to the insecurity and violence in our neighborhoods,? explains Anjere of?the kidnapping, abuse, gang rape and sexual mutilation?which erupted in Kenya in 2008 after President Mwai Kibaki was accused of electoral manipulation.

In Korogocho, where most of boxers are from,?at least three people are raped a week, according to a 2008 report. More than 150,000 residents? crowd into this 1.5 square kilometer shantytown, whose name in Swahili translates to ?shoulder to shoulder.?

?Thugs often wait hidden at night for girls to walk by,? says Laura, 15, but BoxGirls is teaching her and more than 600 others to fight them off. ?In my area nobody can snatch me,? says fellow boxer Doreen, 15.

More than half of the girls?surveyed in a 2013 study of the area said they used their self-defense skills to avert sexual assault within one year after training. ?Girls and women were the most vulnerable,? says Anjere. ?I chose boxing as my tool to challenge the gender stereotypes, since it was perceived to be a male dominated sport.?

Funded by various partners, Boxgirls also has arms in Berlin and South Africa, and also provides entrepreneurship, community building, mentoring, sexual health and reading programs. But it is not the only self-defense course available to the women of Korogocho. Sometimes targeted for rape in the belief that sex with the elderly cures aids,?local grandmothers have also self-organised to teach each other Kung Fu.

All in all, the girls work out for three hours each day, sparring with each other or Priest when they don?t have access to a bag. After they finish, a group of girls designated as peer mentors helps teach life skills and confidence building.

?Quite often the fight is outside the ring ? it?s at home. They have a really tough time generally explaining to their families that they want to do something that is traditionally a boy?s thing. They should be going to Hairdressing College or having babies and finding food for the home, but boxing is insane.

?Most of (the girls) come with such low self-esteem and they leave with high self-esteem because they?ve got these peers and mentors and they?ve got this very physical sport which is, chemically I suppose, changing things within their brain ? When new girls come in, you can see the confidence in them just change.?

Collis describes that change as total empowerment. They get physically stronger, they find a community, and they gain an emotional toolkit for fighting for themselves. Plus, many of their mentors are champion boxers who came out of the same program.

?Boxgirls produced Kenya?s first woman Olympian, which is amazing. The current feather-weight champion came out of Boxgirls and these younger girls really look up to these women,? said Collis. ?The relationship between the younger girls towards these older role models is massive. I think they can see the light at the end of the tunnel. If they really are very good, they can be that. They can do that too.?

Not all the girls want to be boxing champions. One of the girls, a current peer leader and life skills trainer, told Collis that she wants to be a psychiatrist. Either way, they are learning skills they don?t have the opportunity to learn elsewhere.

?I suppose one of the most fundamental things is the gender roles within their slum and how they are defying what women should be doing. That?s very empowering ? Gender-based violence is so massive in Kenya, and in the world, and these girls certainly are born with the lower hand. They have a fight since birth. Generally what most women do is cower down and go with it and these ones are really amazing women. They are fighting back at it.?