Women at Boxgirls in Berlin

BERLIN (WOMENSENEWS)–Rosalia Skowron has undergone a personality change over the past 36 months.

"I am calm and I feel good about myself," she says after jogging around a gym with 15 other women. "I can vent my anger here."

Skowron, 16, managed to put her life back on track after joining Europe’s largest all-female boxing club, Boxgirls, in Berlin. "I am faster, stronger and no longer aggressive," she said. "I have found something I can do well and my family is really proud of me."

Just over three years ago Skowron’s life was threatening to derail. She was a member of a girl gang and at risk of becoming a criminal. "I was really aggressive and I had started getting into fights with people on the street," she says. Her mood was aggravated by arguments with her parents and an illness that kept her in the hospital for six weeks.

Skowron now has a concrete goal: On Sept. 27 she will face a 16-year-old competitor from another club; the prospect is filling her friends at Boxgirls with excitement.

Boxgirls–which has 70 members of varying ages and backgrounds–has been heaped with praise since it opened four years ago. It now holds training sessions three times a week, conducts outreach to girls and leads workshops in local schools.

In 2007 it was voted one of the 16 most innovative sports programs in the world by the Web-based global association of social entrepreneurs, Changemakers. It also won funding from Strengthening Girls!, a German government project aimed at encouraging girls and women to become more assertive through sport, especially in activities traditionally dominated by men, such as rugby, football, rock climbing and capoeira, a game that combines martial arts and dancing.

Developing Initiative

Boxgirls is about far more than sporting prowess and letting off steam, though.

"Our mission here is not just to create excellent boxers," says Boxgirls founder Heather Cameron. "It is to help girls and women become more self-confident and start taking the initiative in their own lives."

In August 2008, a report by the University of Cologne’s Gender Research Department lauded Boxgirls for the "opportunity it afforded girls to improve their ability to take charge of their own lives" and develop greater self esteem.

"Boxing is not just about physical fitness," says Boxgirls trainer Sarah Bitterling. "It is about mental strength and pushing your limits and respecting others and those are skills you can transfer to daily life."

For Canan, a soft-spoken Turkish German 10-year-old dressed in pink slacks and a pink lace headscarf, boxing is "just all fun." Her aim, she says, as she carefully punches a boxing bag, is to build up her muscles so she can enter the ring and fight a real opponent.

Her 13-year-old sister, Dilara, is also looking forward to her first bout of sparring which will only be allowed when she is fully trained.

Releasing a Pressure Valve

For the Rev. Sylvia von Kekule, a 54-year-old Lutheran pastor, boxing is about working out, discipline and releasing pent-up frustration. "As a pastor I have to be nice all day. This is a great pressure-valve," she says.

Yet despite the enthusiasm of Boxgirls members, women and boxing have not always gone hand in hand in Germany. Women’s amateur boxing was banned here until the mid-1990s and female boxers are still fighting for recognition. Boxing is still one of the few Olympic disciplines with no women’s event.

"There has been huge resistance to women’s amateur boxing pretty much everywhere," says Cameron. "One problem is the sharing of resources. Opponents say why should we spend our limited funds on the girls when, let’s be honest, they are not as good as the boys and they are not allowed to compete at the Olympics."

Bitterling, who is the only female referee in Berlin, says while acceptance of female boxers is growing, antiquated views of women remain widespread and are another obstacle to female boxers.

"Some want women boxers to be pretty and wear skirts in the ring. Some male boxers also are unhappy about having a woman referee deciding whether or not they win."

The vice president of Germany’s Boxing Association, Alexander Mazur, however, believes female amateur boxers have a bright future. "These days we are doing everything we can to promote the women," he said. "We organize top-level training camps for them, just as we do with the men. We also hope women will be able to take part in the Olympics in London in 2012."

Not Enough Boxing Girls

Mazur concedes, though, that too few women are interested in the sport, pointing out that just 14 out of 20 regional clubs registered women to part in the German championships this year.

Cameron believes many women are held back by conventional stereotypes. "Women are continually told never show aggression, never get angry, stay behind this line. The fact is that boxing is one of those sports that show that women have a lot of the qualities we celebrate in men such as rationality and courage."

Even so the image of boxing as a violent sport serves as deterrent for some. Pastor von Kekule rarely spars because she cannot "stand the thought of hitting someone in the face." Rosalia and Canan say their parents were also initially worried their daughters could be injured even though the girls themselves have no such qualms.

"People confuse amateur boxing with the professional game where you have to knock out your opponent," says Bitterling. "In amateur boxing you win by scoring points, being quick-witted and using your brain. It is more like dancing than fighting."

Cameron sees boxing not just as a way of improving the quality of women’s lives, both mentally and physically, but also as an agent for social change. She recently set up another branch of Boxgirls in Nairobi, Kenya, where she hopes women will also use self-confidence won through boxing to "take on leadership roles in their communities." Over time Cameron says she would like to establish a network of such clubs around the globe.

"I want to create places where women are taken seriously as athletes and where they lead by example."

Lisa Ellis is a freelance journalist based in Germany