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Boxgirls of Nairobi
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How can martial arts help people to overcome trauma? A visit to the Boxgirls in Nairobi.

Sarah Achieng dances about on the concrete surface, dodging punches and launching her own attacks as she deftly hops back and forth. The gymnasium in which she teaches girls to box is small, with a corrugated iron roof and plaster crumbling from its walls. But to the children here, this building in the middle of the Kariobangi slum is a refuge nonetheless. The gym is run by Boxgirls Kenya, Sarah Achieng’s employer for the past five years. Supported by Laureus Sport for Good, the organisation has around 2,000 beneficiaries in and around Nairobi.

Sarah, you and your girls seem very serene after the boxing session...

Yes, but there are a lot of problems. The girls come from extremely poor backgrounds; most of them have grown up without parents. Many of them fall into prostitution. We see a lot of teenage pregnancies.

Boxing trainer Sarah Achieng
Sarah Achieng, 31, lives in Nairobi with her daughter and husband.

It’s unusual for girls to box. What inspired the foundation to start the initiative?

Ten years ago, the Kenyan general election was followed by considerable violent unrest. During this time, many women from these poorer regions were subjected to rape and sexual abuse. The founders of the initiative wanted to create a space in which topics such as sexuality and gender-specific violence could be tackled, and in which the girls would feel safe and at home. Today the project is a safe space, where the girls can raise any issue, learn at their own pace and learn with peers.

So it’s not just about self-defence?

Not exclusively, no. It teaches them self-confidence and discipline. It also enables them to change patriarchal systems that are related to leadership. Boxgirls have become the leaders or champions in their own lives in the first place. They pass on what they have learned in their homes, schools and their communities – which means that they become leaders in their communities, too.

04
  • Girls stand in a circle and stretch
    1
    It’s mainly teenagers who take the boxing courses at the Asulma Center Primary School in the Kariobangi slum.
  • A girl in a black shirt, hands up, ready for boxing
    2
    Those who participated in previous semesters, such as Damaris Irungu, 22, learn how to teach boxing.

What do you see in the girls when they box?

The combat situation helps them to open up. They learn to get in touch with themselves, to perceive their own bodies more clearly. Often, you can only really have conversations with the girls once they are better connected with themselves and have overcome some of their fears.

How does Laureus Sport for Good help this project?

It has helped us to expand the programme. We now offer advocacy training, for instance. Here we teach the girls to tackle challenges effectively by tasking them with things like improving hygiene in the toilets or setting up school libraries. We also train them to become boxing teachers themselves. Without Laureus, we wouldn’t be able to pay our trainers decent salaries.

“Boxing has made me more self-confident.” Sarah Achieng

You yourself learned to box here; today you train the girls. What impact has this had on you?

Boxing has made me more self-confident and allowed me to compete professionally, even at an international level. Today, I just want to give something back.

A girl in a red dress boxing

This interview is part of the latest issue of the She’s Mercedes magazine. You can download the entire issue here.

She's Mercedes is also part of the Mercedes-Benz Magazine app, now available for download in the app store and in Google Play.

Laureus Sport for Good Foundation

Mercedes-Benz is a founding partner of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation. The foundation was started in 2000 and is today the Mercedes-Benz brand’s most important social responsibility initiative. Its sports projects seek to champion socially disadvantaged children and young people all over the world. Boxgirls Kenya was set up to help girls from Nairobi’s poorer districts.