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Assertive girls

by Theresa Krinninger

In depth

Assertive girls from South Africa, who learn to fight for an independent and self-determined life.

Assertive girls from South Africa, who learn to fight for an independent and self-determined life.

Boxing is more than just a sport, especially when young women compete in the ring. Whether in Berlin’s multicultural Kreuzberg neighbourhood or in African townships, boxing girls gain self-confidence – and bring about change in society.

Ten year-old Fate is standing in front of a blue corrugated sheet in a small backyard in Kariobangi, a Nairobi slum. “I am proud to be a boxer, because I know what I want to kick out of the world,” she says in a video on Youtube. HIV/AIDS, poverty, crime and rape are among the issues she wants to thrash.

“Boxgirls” is the name of a project that was started by social scientist Heather Cameron in Berlin in 2005. Born and educated in Canada, the scholar teaches sports- and integration pedagogy at Berlin’s Free University. She later started the Camp Group, which she calls a “think and do tank” in Berlin. The Boxgirls project is now part of the Camp Group.

Cameron wants to support and motivate women and girls to become more independent, more active and better able to make their voices heard, and boxing is a means to achieve those goals. One of the mottos is: “Strong girls bring about social change.” Boxgirls projects have been also started in Kenya and South Africa.

The Camp Group offers other educational programmes for children and youths, but boxing is a core issue. “It does not only strengthen your body, it changes your personality too,” says Cameron at her Kreuzberg office. She looks determined, even combative. “I decided to box, because it is a beautiful and challenging sport.”

Cameron has been boxing for many years now, and she coaches girls on a voluntary basis. Being a boxer has shaped her own personality. “You are alone in the ring, you have to control your fear, your arrogance, really all your emotions, to become an effective boxer,” she says.

More self-respect

The sport does more than deliver gratification through competitive success and physical strength; it makes girls understand their own body. For young women, it is especially important to have a positive feeling about their bodies, Cameron argues, and by being active as an athlete, they understand that they have control over their bodies: “They get a better sense of self-respect.”

Such boosts are necessary, no doubt. All over the world, women are exposed to gender-based violence. In 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) first conducted systematic global research on violence against women. The results were shocking. One out of three women worldwide had experienced physical or sexual violence at least once. The study also showed that gender-related violence occurs in all countries, cultures and segments of society. In a recent update, the WHO stated that things have not improved.

Germany is affected too, as Cameron points out. Though violence against women is much more explicit in Kenya and South Africa, she says, girls in Germany have to cope with patriarchal power relations at home or in their schools. Many of the girls she works with grow up in socially and economically disadvantaged families, and many have foreign roots. Some 50 % of Boxgirls Berlin have a family history of migration.

But do martial arts really help to stem violence? Yes, boxing does so, say Boxgirls supporters. In amateur boxing, the goal is not to knock out counterparts, but to beat them in technical skill. To win, a girl must read her opponent, anticipate her movements and develop the right strategy. Boxing is more about attitude than punches.

Cameron is convinced that boxing helps young women to develop more self-confidence and self-respect. That makes them “able to oppose domestic or sexualised violence”, she says. There is scientific proof of her argument. In the USA, many studies have shown that teenage girls who are active members of sports clubs are less likely to become pregnant or experience sexual violence in their relationships.

Breaking a taboo

According to Cameron, girls who box are likely to achieve more than others. “First of all, they have fun doing the punches.” That sense of fun contributes to building personalities. The girls become aware of having an impact on the world, rather than only feeling affected by others. Boxing empowers girls to take their fate into their own hands and to strive for goals they set themselves.

It also matters, as Cameron says, that “women who box still break with many taboos.” After all, boxing is considered manly and brutal. It is about punches and lots of body contact. The sports scholar says that successful female boxers show that women can compete in a male-dominated sphere, and that applies to other spheres as well.

One example is Zeina Nassar, Berlin’s 17 year-old box champion. A practicing Muslim, she fights wearing a headscarf. Her parents did not approve of her choice of sport initially, but she remained firm about her passion. Today she is the star of Boxgirls Berlin and the poster child of the project’s successful integration efforts.

Just like Zeina, many African girls would like to become more independent – for instance in Nairobi slums, where life is tough. The Boxgirls project in Kenya has reached out to more than 600 girls and young women in six different Nairobi neighbourhoods. The initiative was started in 2007. It has since become fully independent and is run by local coaches. They cooperate with primary schools and meet the girls there once a week for practice.

Boxgirls South Africa has recently added further activities. In the township of Khayelitsha, 15 primary schools now offer what they call “afterschool clubs”. The girls can go there and do their homework under supervision. But the afterschool clubs serve another function too. Being together allows the girls to share their thoughts and feelings about problems they face at home and in their neighbourhoods. The supervisors become role models who help the girls to master difficult situations. More­over, team work teaches the girls how to best deal with conflicts and to de-escalate encounters that might turn violent.

The Berlin-based Camp Group serves as an adviser to all Boxgirls projects. The long-term approach is to support projects in a way that allows them to become self-sufficient. Boxgirls Kenya and Berlin have already become independent partners within the international Boxgirls network.

Good evaluation is crucial

Success is tangible, but it remains difficult to prove the projects’ precise impact empirically. “We don’t only want to tell nice stories of happy kids,” Cameron says. Her team is cooperating with universities on designing good methods for measuring the social impact of Boxgirls.

So far, they found a promising approach for the afterschool clubs in Cape Town. Research fellows from the German Sports University Cologne and the University of the Western Cape assess the girls’ social and communicative skills before and after participating in the project. To do so properly, they defined four evaluation phases. They also consider the girls’ school performance in mathematics and English, and they consult the parents and supervisors. The results from a first baseline study are promising.

But even without hard data, Boxgirls looks convincing. The sports committee of the German Bundestag picked Boxgirls as a model project in 2005, the UN Year of Sport and Physical Education. Four years later, the initiative won the German Federal Chancellor’s special prize in the contest Startsocial.

Heather Cameron herself was chosen as Germany’s professor of the year in 2010. She was the first foreign scholar to get this prize. She didn’t win only because of her theoretical work. “I am not that interested in writing articles for the library,” she says. Her core concern is “to work with the girls on the ground.”

Theresa Krinninger
is a freelance journalist. From 2013 to 2014 she has worked in the GIZ-Basic Education Programme in Malawi.


Boxgirls International:
Camp Group:

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