The School of Hard Knocks

From the rooftop of her apartment, 23-year old Sonko looks out at the Nairobi slum where she was first ‘discovered’, sunglasses resting on her head in spite of the bright sunlight. In an area where girls are more likely to be raped than finish their education, Sonko’s life has taken a remarkable turn. She has become a champion boxer.

Where gender stereotyping is rigid, and women are regularly denied access to leadership roles and opportunities, it seems farfetched that a team of girls would embrace a traditionally male activity. It also seems at odds with promoting peace. Why would anyone who has already witness the impact of violence want to engage in a violent sport?

The answer is power. Boxing makes girls feel strong. It’s also about discipline, self-defence and personal esteem. Together, these skills provide girls with the mental strength to help them stay focused on things that really matter- like their education.

Traditionally, girls in Sonko’s neighbourhood are discouraged from advancing their studies; this risks making them reliant on often-violent men. On-going stigma means that women who have suffered sexual violence get very little protection from the law or their community and can become trapped in abusive relationships. Without money or education, most have no choice but to accept their circumstances.

Sonko was on course to becoming one of the slum‘s many female casualties. She was raised in the district of Kariobangi, in a rundown one-room apartment with her two sisters. Introverted and shy, she was apprehensive of the violence experience by other local girls. Her life changed at 17, when she was discovered by Alfred Analo.

Analo- or ‘Priest’, as he’s affectionately known- set up the Boxgirls programme in 2007 after two girls came to the window of the Kariobangi social hall during an all-male boxing class and asked if he could teach them. Too. Priest warmed to their enthusiasm and said yes on the spot. the impact of his training was immediate; as the girls grew stronger and happier, Priest resolved to broaden his outreach to the rest of the women in the community. He trained female coaches who then recruited girls to participate in weekly boxing sessions, which built their self-confidence and equipped them with vital self-defence skills.

Six years on, Sonko is a Boxgirls trainer with responsibility for her own group of students. To get there, she had to do more fighting outside of the ring that in it. Her parents were horrified that she wanted to box, and promptly sent her to hairdressing school. She skipped the classes, braved the controversial route to the training hall, and swapped combs for uppercuts.

Over 600 girls have now enrolled in the programme and stayed in school- 150 with help from a scholarship award. Despite its modest budget of USD 37,893 (funded by Comic Relief UK), Boxgirls is punching above its weight, and the training is only one element of an ambitious social regeneration plan.

In 2008, Boxgirls began providing counselling and shelter to the survivors of Kenya’s post-election violence. Many were left traumatised as a result of rape and abuse; the charity responded by expanding its outreach. The 2014 budget of USD 60,000 should expand it further still in the coming year. Most significantly, perhaps, Boxgirls has also launched a microfinance fund- effectively a pool of group savings- which helps young women start their own small businesses and work towards economic independence. Ten-year-old Mitchell Achieng is another devotee who rarely misses training, buoyed by the academy’s meal programme, which ensures she gets more than one meal a day. Ranked as the best boxer in last year’s tournament, Mitchell has recruited many eager fists of her own. One day she many even join the ranks of star graduates, including Elizabeth Adhiambo, the first female boxer to represent Kenya at the Olympics.

“Boxgirls is a safe space for girls to nourish their dreams, despite the challenges around them,” says programme director for Kenya, Cynthia Coredo. “They believe they have the power to change their lives.”

– Published in Libertine Magazine,  Issue- Winter 2013