Boxing program helps women fight demons

Video: Shape Your Life


Boxing is a combat sport — a toe-to-toe fight in which the goal is to hit your opponent more times than they hit you.

But for the Shape Your Life program at the Newsgirls Boxing Club, the goal and ultimately the allure is expressing that same anger and aggression, but avoiding the inherent violence of fighting.

When the next session starts up on Nov. 7, Newsgirls will host as many as 20 women and transgendered individuals, who are survivors of violence and abuse and are looking to battle its debilitating effects.

Joanne Green, a co-founder of the program and executive director of Opportunity for Advancement (OFA), once had a person come to her and say: “Because somebody did that to me, my scars will heal, my broken bones will heal. I can fix my teeth, I’m gonna go on, but the hopelessness and the helplessness I felt will be with me forever.”

Stories like this are far too common and Green, along with Savoy Howe and Cathy van Ingen, decided to proactively tackle the sensitive subject.

The point of the project is not to teach the participants how to fight, nor is it a support group where the victims are forced to reveal secrets and open painful wounds.

“It’s one of the things about boxing, you leave your bags at the door,” said Howe, the owner and head trainer at Newsgirls.

“But you still have to pick your bags up when you leave, and if they’re heavy you slump back into your life. But each time they leave they start slumping less.”

“We talk about taking back power for your own body, and that’s what the training is really about,” Green said.

But Green admits it’s not easy to sell potential funders on the idea and cites gender bias and the confusion of what it means to empower women physically as the main stumbling blocks to the program’s growth.

“It’s simple to write it off as a sports or recreation program, but when you talk about it as women’s power we [society] collectively hold our breath,” she said. “People are still very uncomfortable talking about women’s power and there is often a backlash.”

Each session costs about $3,000, which pays for the space, the training, as well as hand wraps, transit tokens and small snacks.

Fortunately, there is no cost passed on to the members as funding is facilitated privately and through OFA, including a $75,000 provincial grant issued in the fall of 2006 and a private donation of $80,000 doled out in 2007.

But as the popularity of the three-year-old program increases and funding dries up, the waiting list grows.

“You can’t argue with the government or a funder,” Green said. “You can’t explain that if 15 women make a different choice how much money in savings from medical costs, incarcerations, children’s aid and all the associated things that get triggered waiting for something bad to happen. You’re fighting social inequalities, how do you explain this?”

While pleading for funding often falls on deaf ears, results speak volumes.

Upon completing the six-to-eight week session, the women undergo a one-on-one evaluation to determine if the program has positively affected their situation.

Green points to the story of Shape Your Life graduate Jacqueline Scott, who was “at the end of her rope” when she first stepped into the gym, as an example of the project’s success.

After a few weeks, Scott gained custody of her son, who she had previously given up when going through tough times, became a plumber’s apprentice and used her Newsgirls training to fight her way to a provincial championship last October.

Because of its success, the program has expanded outside Toronto and is currently available in Jakarta, Indonesia and Iqaluit, Nunavut.

But Green is skeptical of the short-term gains and worries Shape Your Life could lose the interest and urgency of the funders.

“Just because these programs are good doesn’t mean they’re going to survive,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of brilliant programs that have lost funding because they didn’t know what to do with it.

“These programs are kind of like a shooting star. You are seeing light from shooting stars years after and that’s where the impact is for these women. Is that all our society is capable of – brief, momentary shots of brilliance?”

By all accounts, Shape Your Life has drastically changed the lives — in some cases saved lives — of many women and trans people and whether it burns out or fades away you can be certain it won’t go down without a fight.