Here’s what we learned from ESD Global’s self-defense training for women

AWRA founding member Domtila Chesang (pictured bottom row left) poses with ESD Global training participants.

As a movement, African Women Rights Advocates (AWRA) believes in creating safer spaces for women, where survivors can heal and thrive.

We believe all women and girls should be equipped with the necessary skills to protect their bodily integrity and boundaries. Our partners and allies at ESD Global stand for the same message.

That’s why AWRA – represented by co-founder Domtila Chesang – participated in one of ESD Global’s intensive self-defense training programs this month.

The seven-day defense training, organized by ESD Global in Rwanda, was a “life-transforming” experience for Domtila, who traveled from Kenya to attend the course.

Domtila not only saw herself in the training, but she also saw the young girls and survivors of gender-based violence that she works to empower through her activism.

“As a frontline activist, I have always been there for other people, defending others, sacrificing, and being that kind of person who is always giving. I don’t get so much back myself,” she said. “So, finally, I was exposed to that way of setting up boundaries for myself.”

The training included several activities that were both theoretical and practical. The participants, coming from various countries across Africa, were taught self empowerment tools through physical and verbal self defense.

“In the beginning of the training, I was wondering if it would be useful, but the moment we started the classes, so much unfolded before my eyes. I saw my blind spots, recognized my power, and also realized there was so much more power within me,” said Domtila.

The training taught participants how to identify situations where they should take action, retreat, calm down, think, or fight. ESD Global thoroughly discussed the five principles of self-defense: yell, tell, run, fight, and think.

By sharing stories in group discussions, Domtila and her colleagues found that those five principles encompassed many parts of their experiences as frontline defenders.

“As we started sharing our stories, we realized that we’ve underestimated the power within us, and that we can use the tools we have. This brought back memories of vulnerability from times I’ve felt that I couldn’t defend myself or defend another person,” she said.

Domtila was also able to pick up new techniques and tools that she had trouble learning about in the past, such as setting healthy boundaries and saving one’s energy .

“If young girls are growing up and not learning how to say ‘no’, they will grow up not knowing about boundaries. This puts them in dangerous situations,” Domtila added.

“Even small things matter, sometimes we say ‘yes’ when we really want to say ‘no. ’ It can be as simple as saying ‘yes’ to an uncomfortable hug from a family member when your body didn’t want to be hugged. We have allowed people to abuse our bodies without even realizing,” she said.

Domtila also discussed the experience of many African women, who are sometimes taught to cover up their discomfort and struggle in the name of social constructs and reputation.

“During an attack from perpetrators in domestic settings, we want to remain quiet so the neighbors don’t hear,” Domtila added. “We think we’re protecting our reputation, but actually, we are protecting the abusers.”

ESD Global is an organization that supports frontline activists, including women, so that they can learn more about the importance of self defense and empowerment through holistic methods.

The training held by ESD Global has shown Domtila that there is so much more that she can do to protect herself, as well as pass on the knowledge to young girls and other women.

“I’m prepared and now fully equipped to pass this on. I can actually defend myself using simple tools within my own reach, including using my own voice,” Domtila added.

“Self-defense promotes peace more than violence. It calms a situation, builds skills and solves it in the best way possible so that you can protect yourself. There’s no training on using sharp objects or weapons, it’s about using parts of your body, which includes your voice,” Domtila said.

Coming from deeply patriarchal communities where women are often victims of gender-based violence and sexual abuse, women and girls need to have contextual tools to help them gain confidence, set boundaries, and encourage social change.

“We need to integrate self defense in all our educational programs – including schools. These seemingly simple tools need to be taught from a very young age,” she said.

“If every child could be equipped with such teachings and tools, so many cases of death and abuse could be prevented in our communities,” Domtilla added.

At least 1 in every 3 women in Domtila’s community in West Pokot County in Kenya have been victims of domestic violence.

“I experienced violence firsthand, and I know these teachings can be used to change that statistic,” Domtila said.

For Domtila, the training with ESD Global was the missing link. She will now apply what she learned in her own advocacy work, and when supporting survivors in her community.

“The ESD training is a practical tool and holistic package that can help women gain confidence and be grounded in their bodies, especially when participating in sensitization campaigns and activism,” Domtila added.

Reem Abdellatif

The Author

Reem Abdellatif is an AWRA founding member. As a former foreign correspondent, her in-depth stories on women marginalization, gender-based violence, and domestic abuse are testament to her passion for creating social impact. Reem is Egyptian-American and is part of the first generation of women in her family to escape Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Egypt.