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Boxing girls in Nairobi learn to punch

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In a boxing gym in a poor neighborhood of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, young women learn to punch away. “Men have become afraid of me.”

In the poor Kariobangi district of Nairobi, the determination of the young female boxers radiates within the gym. Amidst the heavy breathing and the rhythmic thud-thump-thump against the punching bags, the commanding voice of trainer Shakira Mohammad Mukungu (44) resonates. Graffiti on the wall with the emblem of the Boxgirls Kenya: Strong girls safe communities.

“Men have become afraid of me,” says trainer Mukungu, the angry look on her face giving way to a smile. “When women stand up for themselves, men quickly see it as intimidation.”

Outside, foul water with the noxious stench of rotting waste flows through the maze of bustling alleys. Never before have had so many Kenyans lived together in poor neighborhoods. Urbanization in Africa is progressing at an unprecedented rate, with the urban population doubling every twenty years; the slums are expanding twice as fast as the already burgeoning cities. In the marginalized neighborhoods of Nairobi, young women often find themselves alone. Neither the police nor the criminal gangs overseeing the neighborhoods can ensure their safety.

 “Stop killing us,” hundreds of women chanted in January during a demonstration against femicides in several cities in Kenya. That month alone, twenty women had been murdered in Kenya. According to Amnesty International, more than 500 women, most under the age of 35, were murdered by husbands and parents in the country between 2016 and 2023.

Lencer Otiëno and Shakira

Boxing away tension

Inside the gym it feels more like a community center than a traditional gym. It seems as if the tension caused by poverty and inequality between the sexes is being pushed away. “Training helps you control your mind and get rid of your frustrations,” says Mukungu.

In deprived neighborhoods, boxing training can also save your life. Mukungu tries to hit Lencer Otiëno, who is practicing at the boxing gym. “A woman should be able to defend herself. I have to be able to strike back in my neighborhood,” says Otiëno. Now that she is boxing, she feels “a lot more confident.”

An accurate technique is required to do proper boxing, rather than just punching wildly. But judgement of human character is essential as well to give the poverty-stricken young women enough confidence to push their physical limits. Trainer Mukungu has it all: the empathy of a social worker, the toughness of a go-getter. Sometimes she looks sullen, sometimes she comes across as a gentle woman.

During a certain time, the Kenyan national boxing team captivated sports enthusiasts. Kenyan boxers were a symbol of honor, achieving an abundance of medals. Mukungu’s stepfather, Hussein Khalili, originates from that illustrious period spanning the 1980s and 1990s. Mukungu was raised in the Kibera slum, but fortune smiled upon her as Hussein Khalili secured a gold medal at the 1982 Commonwealth Games. This fame bestowed upon him sufficient financial means to provide education for his children.

“I admired his medals in the living room and asked if I could come along to his training.” Hussein Khalili thought that was a good idea, although his motive was mainly to get rid of her excess weight. “But the high blood pressure remained and I could not box. So I became a trainer.”

During her childhood, her parents moved to the Ugandan capital Kampala, where first her father and then she herself started a gym called Jab Uganda for both boys and girls. “Even Bobi Wine came to train with us,” she says, the music-making Ugandan opposition leader who had also risen from the ghetto.

In Kampala, Mukungu also gives boxing lessons to rich people, often diplomats. She can use the proceeds to get poor people to come to her gyms and organize training sessions in Kenya. “I am a boxing businessman.” She now has the ambition to come and train with Boxgirls in Kenya as well.

Men’s sport

Initially, there was pushback against girls participating in boxing training, particularly from parents. Despite a decrease in women’s submissiveness to men, true equality has not yet been achieved. “Yes, women are advancing into higher positions more frequently. Much progress has been made, but it is not sufficient.” Women are expected to conform to societal expectations, and boxing is traditionally viewed as a male-dominated sport. Some parents fear that boxing may instill aggression in girls towards their parents and men.

Sometimes men feel passed over by emancipated women. Mukungu: “There is still insufficient emancipation of men.” In the past, men could easily provide income for the family and, according to tradition, they were the boss. Emancipation and education have turned these roles upside down and that makes many men insecure. “They are afraid to take their traditional responsibility.” The shift in relations leads to confusion and breakdown of traditional respect for women. This development is also seen as a cause for the violence against women.

Mukungu’s solution to the violence and lack of emancipation: “Let’s all go boxing. And take your husband with you.”

Jab Uganda is support by Wilde ganzen in the Netherlands

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