Do combat sports really measure up when it comes to women’s self-defen

“Developing self-defence skills means reclaiming autonomy, thus regaining control over one’s environment. We are no longer at the mercy of someone,” according to psychotraumatology psychologist, Julie Francols. But are combat sports effective when it comes to fending off an unexpected attack?


More and more women are venturing into the world of self-defence and combat sports, a trend strongly supported by recent data. A report from the French government highlights an 11% rise in martial arts licences and a 51% surge in combat sports licences among women between 2012 and 2017. Despite these fields being male-dominated in 2017, with martial arts and combat sports having a female participation of 32% and 31% respectively, by 2022, a notable shift was observed. According to the French National Institute of Youth and Popular Education, in France in that year, the majority of Martial Arts licences were owned by women, accounting for 62% compared to 38% for men.

In Lyon, France, the organisation Renouveau Boxe helps women who have been the victims of domestic violence, by offering boxing training.

A participant of the class, who didn’t wish to be named, added: “This training allows us to regain self-confidence and to see ourselves as people. What it shows us is that we’re not alone in this situation. And actually, we’re not ashamed. Because, very often we feel responsible for what’s happening and ashamed of it. But being with others who have lived through the same thing means we understand each other and speak the same language.”

Samir Hamzaoui, an instructor and former high-level boxer, shared his inspiration: “I know what it is to take hits and to put myself in the shoes of someone who can’t defend themselves. That’s what led me to start this project.”

Delving deeper, what spurs some women’s interest in combat sports?

Julie Francols, a Psychotraumatology Psychologist, shed some light on this. “Experiencing an assault makes you feel robbed of something. The assailant unjustly takes control over you. However, developing self-defence skills means reclaiming autonomy and the ability to defend oneself, thus regaining control over one’s environment. We are no longer at the mercy of someone.” She further observed, “You can see it in people from the time they start the training to when they finish; their bodies express the change: they now exist in the world differently.”

How effective are these disciplines when it comes to preventing violence?

Christy Martin, a former boxing champion and survivor of domestic violence, weighed in on the issue. “Even though I was a boxing champion, I was physically and mentally abused by a man… He had threatened to kill me for 20 years, so I would push, but you only push so hard. It was not a match. Even though he was 20 years older, he was still stronger than me. So, physically, I was never going to be able to fight him and win. I mean, any time that he hit me, even if I pushed physically back, I just got hit harder. So, I was never going to win that physical altercation. And the truth is, I never won the emotional altercations, either.” On 23 November, 2010, Christy Marty was stabbed and shot by her husband. At the time, she was 42 years old and the welterweight champion credited with putting women’s boxing on the map.

Julie Francols told us it’s not simply a matter of knowing how to defend oneself: “When we are attacked, the first response, which is an automatic reflex by our autonomic nervous system, uses either attack, flight or freezing up. At that moment, the victim is paralysed”.

“To implement these self-defence techniques, there needs to be a few brief seconds that allow the person to regain control of the situation. It requires a lot of training for self-defence techniques to become automatic. However, at first there will always be these automatic, involuntary responses.”

Navigating trauma and expectations

Addressing a critical aspect of recovery, Julie Junquet, a consultant on issues of sexual and sexist violence and discrimination in sports, highlighted the challenges faced by survivors of violence: “I don’t see self-defence as a solution in the fight against sexual violence, and I find there’s even a message that can be guilt-inducing for these women who take classes, who tell themselves, ‘now I know how to defend myself’, if they face an assault in the future and unfortunately can’t reproduce the techniques they’ve learned. I find that can be somewhat guilt-inducing.”

Junquet also highlighted additional misconceptions about these training programs. “The societal messages are problematic. Don’t dress like that, don’t walk alone at night, learn to defend yourself; it’s always problematic. No, we don’t want to learn to defend ourselves; we just want not to be assaulted!

“We know that placing oneself in conditions of struggle, combat, or potential assault can trigger flashbacks of the real assault, trigger revivals, and there, it can trigger in the brain certain mechanisms that are quite dangerous. Placing oneself in a situation of assault is not trivial.”

Christy Martin cautioned against creating a false sense of invincibility: “You have to be careful with teaching self-defence, so that we don’t put a false belief out there, thinking ‘OK, I’m going to do this self-defence class, and then I’m always going to be able to fight off anybody that attacks me.’ That is not the case.”

So, how can this kind of training reach its fullest potential?

Christy Martin believes it’s not merely about the physical aspect but the self-belief the training instills. “It’s really not about the skills that you’re learning; it’s not about throwing a right hand, throwing a left hook. It’s about the confidence that learning those skills gives you, and that confidence helps you be stronger to stand up for yourself.”

She credits her boxing career for helping her survive the attack she was a victim of. “I think my boxing career gave me mental strength. Much more than it gave me physical strength. Mentally, it made me a fighter. And when I was laying on the floor after being shot and stabbed, I believed in me. I mentally thought ‘with the help of God, I can get up and get out’.”

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After yet another murder, Italy moves to boost laws protecting women

After the latest murder of a woman by her partner, Italy is revisiting its laws protecting women from gender-based violence. But experts say new legislative measures are not what the country needs.

Only days after a pregnant woman was brutally killed by her boyfriend in a murder that shocked and outraged the nation, Italy has introduced stricter measures to try to stop the steady rise in the number of femicides in the country.

Giulia Tramontano, 29, was seven months pregnant when she was stabbed to death by her partner and baby’s father, 30-year-old Alessandro Impagnatiello, who was reportedly in a secret relationship with another woman.

The gruesome details of the murder and Impagnatiello’s attempts to conceal her body, together with his efforts to deflect attention from the police investigation, have contributed to making Tramontano’s murder a major case for Italian media and the public.

The woman’s death, and that of her unborn baby, caused a wave of emotion that reached the government, with the Cabinet passing a new legislative package on Wednesday evening which includes measures to speed up legal processes involving victims of gender-based violence and extend the protection of women who have suffered stalking.

How bad is gender-based violence in Italy?

While in Italy the number of homicides has been generally declining since the 1990s, the number of women killed by a family member or a partner has remained high, and, proportionately, has grown in recent years.

“The situation has been stagnant for years,” Elena Biaggioni, vice president of D.i. Re, a national association managing over 100 anti-violence centres and 60 women’s shelters across the country, told Euronews. “What we’ve seen is an increase in the more violent cases.”

According to the latest data from Italy’s Ministry of the Interior, out of a total of 319 homicides in the country in 2022, 125 — about 39% — were femicides, intentional killings with a gender-related motivation.

Almost 74% of these femicides — 103 in total — happened in a domestic environment, in line with global data which shows that women are more likely to die at the hand of a family member or a partner than a stranger, unlike men.

According to the group Femminicidio Italia, which collects data on femicides in Italy, there have been at least 18 victims of femicides in Italy since the beginning of the year.

“Violence against women is a phenomenon that’s more or less present in all countries, caused by structural causes like the disparity between men and women, stereotypes and prejudices,” Biaggioni said. “But of course in countries where there’s a macho culture and sexism is stronger, like Italy, this violence is justified in a different way.”

“The phenomenon is really serious, and it’s rooted in our experience as a country,” Irene Pellizzone, professor of constitutional law at the University of Milan, told Euronews. “Official data from 2014 showed that one in four women aged between 25 and 75 has suffered some form of gender violence, and we have no evidence that this percentage has declined.”

The numbers around violence against women in Italy could be even worse than reported, Pellizzone said, as there’s a lack of data on episodes involving disabled women, migrant women and women who suffer from drug addiction.

Do the government’s new measures go far enough?

Under the new law, which still needs to be approved by Parliament before coming into force, those accused of stalking, cyber-bullying or domestic violence would be forced to stay 500 metres away from their victims’ homes and other places they usually go. 

Victims of domestic violence, stalking, and other crimes which disproportionately affect women would be constantly informed on the location of their aggressors, and notified when they are released from prison.

On top of that, a preventative measure would allow authorities to take away any weapon in possession of a person who’s been already reported for any of the previous crimes. The legislative packet could be modified as it goes through the two chambers, but it’s expected to be passed through Parliament.

“Some elements [of the new package] are probably going in the right direction, for example the efforts to provide victims with greater protection,” Alessandra Viviani, associate professor of international law at the University of Siena, told Euronews. “But in my opinion, to combat the phenomenon of violence against women, this isn’t enough,” she added.

“We cannot continue to work only and exclusively in the field of criminal law, as we’ve done in the past few years. And it’s clear from the fact that episodes of violence against women aren’t decreasing, but are becoming ever more obscene in their violence and cruelness.”

For Viviani, what Italy needs to address is the way men who kill women are seen by the media and the public. “Femicides are seen as the actions of crazy men, men who don’t accept being left behind,” she said.

“As long as we keep on interpreting femicides as the action of a few men turned evil, we’re never going to see a change in society. Because violence against women comes from a profound inequality that’s deeply rooted in our culture.”

What the country needs, according to Viviani, it’s to educate people, starting from schools, to feel empathy and respect towards women.

Biaggioni, who thinks that “we should not act on the wave of emotion for one particular victim”, agrees. The real problem in Italy, she said, is a lack of training, “the ability to recognise that violence against women is a serious problem.”

“We need prevention, we need education,” she said. “We need anti-violence centres to be able to go to schools and talk to the kids about the topic. Most of the activities on violence in schools are done by law enforcement agencies through programs against bullying, online violence, and so on — that’s not enough,” she continued. “But they don’t let associations like ours into schools because they’re afraid of the so-called gender ideology.”

“We need to make people understand that there’s a way out of this violence,” Pellizzone said. “We need to increase funding to the anti-violence centres, and we need to provide the tools for women to ask for help without feeling guilt and knowing that their physical integrity is their constitutional right.”

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Treat perpetrators of domestic violence, not just victims

The first program for perpetrators of domestic violence was launched in Switzerland in the late 1980s. It wasn’t until the early 2000s and the creation of seven programs in five years that anything could be said about momentum.

Today, almost all cantons have a unit dedicated to treating those who have committed family or intimate partner violence. But their treatment has remained a blind spot in the fight against violence.

“Given the lack of resources, protecting victims takes priority. This makes sense, when you know how much associations had to fight, at the beginning, to obtain funding. Government authorities are struggling to come to grips with the issue. From a political point of view, it’s not a vote winner. But if we don’t do more for perpetrators, we’re not getting to the root of the problem,” says Anne Le Penven, Secretary-General of the Association Professionnelle Suisse de Consultations contre la Violence (APSCV), a violence counseling organization.

A reluctance that she explains is fueled by a form of taboo: “There is fear of giving too much space to perpetrators. But the goal of treatment is not to give them a platform, but rather to get them to take responsibility and, ultimately, to avoid recidivism.”

For a long time, treatment for perpetrators was rarely considered by the courts. Out of 10,879 people registered by the police in 2020, only 8.4% were ordered to undergo treatment, says the APSCV.

But the lines are shifting. The revision of the federal law on improving the protection of victims of violence, in effect since 2020, has led to an increase in referrals to domestic violence education programs.

Previously, authorities could suspend a case for bodily harm, threats, battery or coercion between spouses or partners at the victim’s request. And that was the outcome of the majority of domestic violence cases, which then ended up being dismissed.

Since the law was amended, the criteria have become stricter: In order for the court to suspend proceedings, the victim must not only request it, but the decision must be aimed at stabilizing or improving the victim’s situation.

In addition, judges may require the perpetrator to attend a “prevention program” aimed at reducing the risk of further violence.

“For a long time, it was wrongly believed that psychoeducational or therapeutic care had no effect if it was imposed. This is changing. Feedback from the field indicates that the courts are making greater use of this tool,” Véronique Jaquier Erard, professor at the Centre for Criminological Research (CRRC), reports. And when used more often, programs for perpetrators of violence become more professionalized. Several cantons, including Vaud, Geneva and Valais, also provide for a mandatory socio-educational interview whenever a perpetrator is expelled from the common residence.

Logically, this has led to an explosion of initial consultations. However, long-term therapeutic commitment is rare. Figures presented in the canton of Vaud in early 2021 show that only 30% of individuals accept a second or third session. Fewer still attend a full program.

Yet studies tend to show that these programs pay off, even when they are imposed. The latest of these studies comes from Zurich. In June 2021, the Zurich Sentence Enforcement Office presented the results of a comparison between men who had participated in at least 10 sessions of a prevention program between 2011 and 2016 to those who had received no measures and to a third group who had left treatment prematurely.

During the two years following the measure, recidivism among participants in the violence prevention program fell to 4.7%, as compared to 17.4% in the group of individuals who did not participate in treatment. This assessment only reflects incidents recorded by the police and, therefore, does not include any unreported instances of assault. However, the results of the assessment are clear: The Zurich program reduces recidivism by more than half, at least initially.

The same study also calculated the cost-benefit ratio of this type of preventive measure. A case of recidivism amounts to 150,000 francs (just over 150,000 euros), according to an assessment by the Federal Office for Gender Equality (BFEG), which takes into account the direct and indirect costs of an act of domestic violence. A therapeutic program costs between 3,200 and 4,100 francs. Conclusion: The participation of 100 people in this type of measure would result in savings of around 1.4 million.

“Making the program compulsory eliminates dropouts, which are frequent among voluntary participants,” stresses Véronique Jaquier Erard, who studied the evaluation of these measures on behalf of the BFEG. Her conclusions? “Groups for perpetrators of domestic violence are effective. But they are not suitable for everyone. Participants need to be properly selected and services need to be evaluated to ensure they meet participants’ needs. Professionals often don’t have enough resources to analyze the work they’re doing,” says Véronique Jaquier Erard.

Using the police as relays In Neuchâtel, a canton of 176,245 citizens, the Service pour Auteurs de Violence Conjugale (SAVC), a unit dedicated to perpetrators of domestic violence, constitutes one and a half positions shared by four people. As is still the case with many of these programs, financing for this unit was initially private: It was provided by Loterie Romande and the Philip Morris tobacco company. Since 2011, the unit has been affiliated with the Neuchâtel Psychiatric Centre (CNP) and its services are reimbursed by health insurance.

Providers’ main challenge is getting in touch with those needing their services. The SAVC works in collaboration with the Neuchâtel police: During interventions, law enforcement officers send them the contact information of perpetrators of domestic violence, with their consent.

Every Monday evening, at the the Service pour Auteurs de Violence Conjugale (SAVC) in Neuchâtel, participants meet with psychologists and discuss their problems confidentially and without judgement.

Every Monday evening, at the the Service pour Auteurs de Violence Conjugale (SAVC) in Neuchâtel, participants meet with psychologists and discuss their problems confidentially and without judgement.
| Photo Credit:
Benjamin Tejero/Le Temps

Psychologist Hilde Stein helped found the SAVC in 2006: “There is, on average, one police intervention per day for domestic violence in the canton of Neuchâtel. We should be seeing more than 300 people a year. However, the vast majority of perpetrators refuse to be contacted. In 2022, we met with 99 people. It's a drop in the bucket, but I think it’s still very important. Every time we have someone in front of us, we plant a seed.”

Regardless of the reasons that lead them to therapy, participants must all meet one condition before they can join the group: They must admit responsibility. “We will not work with a person who’s in total denial. At the very least, they must acknowledge that they are involved in the issue. At the beginning, many of them say that their being here is a misunderstanding.”

The vast majority of perpetrators have lived in an abusive family environment. “It’s a defense mechanism. But in the group, we don't dwell on that victim status. We focus on their behavior,” says Hilde Stein. In this context, group therapy is a powerful confrontation tool, observes the therapist. “Participants realize that what they have done is not acceptable. They progress by listening. They reflect on their actions without necessarily having to say so. They also find support and people to celebrate their progress. They’re not all going to leave transformed. But the group creates a dynamic of self-healing.”


“I have tools to help me take a step back.”

Forced to participate in group therapy following violent behavior toward his partner, Thierry* initially thought he had nothing in common with the other participants.

If Thierry went to SAVC group therapy every Monday night, it was only because a prosecutor ordered him to attend the program and because he stood to lose a lot by not complying, after a second “episode of domestic violence,” as he called it.

The first happened four years ago. “I slapped my wife during an argument. She filed a complaint with the police,” says the mechanic in his mid-forties. The authorities at the time directed Thierry to therapy. He didn’t feel he needed it.

The second time, he didn’t have a choice: Sentenced to 4 months in prison and 4 years of probation, the program for perpetrators of domestic violence was no longer an option. It was now an obligation, along with other rules of conduct, such as giving up alcohol. “I had been drinking when it happened,” he explains.

It was the beginning of winter. His wife suspected him of being unfaithful, and Thierry had felt “pushed to the limit” for several weeks. He brought up the monitoring of his cell phone and being criticized in front of his children and friends. As the couple returned home from an aperitif, a new fight broke out. He struck his wife in the mouth. During the fight, she ended up on the ground.

At first, he attended the group therapy sessions with reluctance. Resigned, he tried to “take away what he could,” but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he didn’t belong there. “Some of these people are sick. They break everything and often hit their wives. I was nothing like them. Then other men arrived, with a story similar to mine. I felt I was there by mistake. Our problems could have been resolved between us, at home, instead of calling the police.”

The sessions didn’t result in a fundamental change in his mentality. He still thinks his wife should go to therapy, too. “She knows what to say to hurt me. And I take it,” he says. But, in the long run, he ended up finding something he could take away from the program. “Now, when things get heated with my wife and children, instead of yelling, I try to take a step back. I have tools.”

*Name changed

Read all stories from the Towards Equality campaign here.

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