A Fighting Chance: Meet Kenya's Boxgirls

Patricia Esteve
Patricia Esteve / Patricia Esteve

In these Kenya-based boxing classes, “You fight like a girl” is the ultimate compliment. In fact, it’s the goal.

Developed by local boxing coach Analo Anjere in the early 2000s, Boxgirls Kenya aims to empower young women in Nairobi by teaching them how to protect and defend themselves. The non-for-profit community is a branch of the larger, international Boxgirls organization, which also has outposts in Berlin and Capetown, South Africa.

Today, girls and women ages 10 to 25—who often live near the organization’s location in one of the largest slums in Nairobi—flock to Boxgirls for regular lessons. But the community isn't just about throwing powerful jabs and precise kicks. Boxgirls also organizes outreach and educational events like delivering books to girls from a mobile library. And as the Boxgirls International website explains, even the students' time in the ring isn't really all about the boxing: "It is learning about yourself, setting boundaries and respecting boundaries of others ... It helps girls can concentrate on their goals and have trust in themselves to reach them."

Photojournalist Patricia Esteve recently captured the passion project in a photo series called “The Fragile Strength.”

Before starting Boxgirls Kenya, Anjere privately trained both young women and young men in Nairobi. When two girls caught a glimpse of one of Anjere's sessions with male students and wondered out loud if they could learn fight like boys, too, Anjere did them one better: She offered them—and many others—a chance to learn to fight like girls.

The program delivers a strong one-two combo: Students learn proper boxing techniques to defend themselves as well as self-confidence. Boxgirls Kenya describes itself as "a safe place for girls, to learn about life and talk about their issues."

Both parts of the training could give the young women a fighting chance in the world outside their classes. The statistics on violence against women and children in Kenya are grim. According to a 2010 UNICEF study [PDF], 32 percent of females under the age of 18 experience sexual violence and 66 percent experience physical violence. The study also reports that few of those victims know where to seek out help.

In the more than 10 years since Boxgirls Kenya launched, the program has welcomed over 600 students and awarded more than 100 scholarships. The community even boasts a few well-known graduates, including Sarah Achieng, who was ranked as the 47th featherweight in the world in 2011. Four years later, Achieng claimed the Female Inter-Continental Lightweight title.

Boxgirls also has a few famous coaches in its history. In 2012, Boxgirls coach Elizabeth Adhiambo became the first woman in to represent Kenya in boxing at the Olympics, and coach Sarah Ndisi previously ranked no. 45 in the professional women's boxing featherweight category.

To learn more about the organization, visit the official website. You can watch the students in action here.

Images courtesy of Patricia Esteve.