In African slums, boxing clubs are seen as a good way to keep young men off the streets, let them take out their frustrations through sport rather than crime, and provide a way out of poverty. In Uganda, though, one woman has stepped into the ring to not only win medals on the continent, but also empower young women to stay off the streets and defend themselves.
Hellen Baleke was walking one night in Katanga slum, her Kampala neighborhood, when a young man approached her and started touching her.
She says she didn’t like boys touching her because, if they did, the end result would be pregnancy and HIV. So, when he groped me, says Baleke, I wanted to fight. But he beat me up.
Baleke returned home with a bloody nose.
She did not tell her mother about the attack or how she planned to deal with it.
Baleke began sneaking out of the house early in the morning to train - as a boxer.
Her mother, Sarah Bagoole, noticed Baleke’s disappearance acts and confronted her.
She says she waited for Baleke and when she returned, she told her, ‘Mama, I have knocked out a girl.’ Bagoole said, ‘What?! You have knocked out a girl?!’ And told her, ‘You will be beaten, but never come here crying. The day they beat your eye and pluck it out, it will be on you.’ Bagoole says she wasn’t happy at all.
Baleke’s mother warmed up to her daughter's boxing, though, as she kept training, competing, and winning.
In August at the African Games in Rabat, Morocco, she won a bronze medal, becoming Uganda’s first medal-winning female boxer in 18 years.
Baleke also trains other women, such as hairdresser Moureen Ajambo, to box for self-defense and to help young women stay off the streets.
I see so many girls, says Ajambo. They are young, they drink booze, they get pregnant, some get (HIV) the virus that causes AIDS. They can’t take care of their child or themselves, she says. They take drugs, they take everything that gets them high, says Ajambo. It hurts me.
Kampala’s Katanga slum is home to 20,000 urban poor, who live in crowded conditions and where women are often victims of crime.
The coach at Katanga’s Rhino Boxing Club, Innocent Kapalata, says more and more young women in the slum are joining the club.
Most of those who come to train do it to seek revenge, he says. But I strive to take it out of them, says Kapalata, telling them we don’t train boxers for revenge but to stay fit and healthy. Something else, he says, boxing is a business. You could get lucky and make some money.
To help the women earn money quickly and so they can keep boxing, Baleke set up a tailoring workshop.
Whether teaching how to punch a needle through cloth or an opponent in the ring, Baleke is empowering young women in Uganda’s Katanga slum.