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School of hard knocks

Georgia Hanias
The students at Kenya’s Boxgirls academy are an uppercut above the rest.

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.

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 witnessed 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.

Ringing the changes

23-year-old Sonko (pictured in the mirror, above) was on course to becoming one of Kariobangi’s many female casualties. She is now a Boxgirls trainer with responsibility for her own group of students. To get there, she had to do more fighting outside of the ring than in it – metaphorically speaking. Her parents, for instance, 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 got training.

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 a year (funded by Comic Relief UK), Boxgirls is punching above its weight, and the training is only one element of an ambitious social regeneration plan. Most significantly, perhaps, Boxgirls has also launched a microfinance fund which helps young women start their own small businesses and work towards economic independence.

“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.”

Photography by Mia Collis. 



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