SAINT-DENIS, FRANCE - Women's marches last weekend in cities around the world show just how much attention the #MeToo movement has drawn to the issue of sexual violence. But experts say there is a long way to go. An EU report says one in 20 women in Europe has been raped, and many still do not report sexual assaults.
But in France, a triple world karate champion is teaching women to heal through her sport—both at home and in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Laurence Fischer has faced some tough adversaries, but nothing like the one she's dealing with today. It's often invisible and hard to beat: the trauma from sexual assault and violence endured by women in her class.
Everybody here has a different story. M'bamoussa Soumare was raped by a relative in her native Mali at the age of 12.
Soumare says her family forced her to marry her rapist two years later, and she underwent excision. She had one child after another and her husband beat her. Finally, last year, she managed to flee to France, with help from a sister living here.
Soumare landed at La Maison des Femmes, or The Women's Home, a special center for female victims of violence, outside Paris.
"Some of them are victims of domestic violence, others of incest. All kinds of violence in fact. We try to help them according to their story," said Dr. Ghada Hatem, a gynecologist and founder of The Women's Home. Many of the women who come here are African immigrants. But plenty of French women have shared their experiences.
"There are many enquiries (studies) that show that about seven women in 10 are victims of violence. So we are all concerned," she said.
The center offers medical and psychological treatment — but also therapeutic classes, like this one, taught by former triple world karate champion Laurence Fischer.
"Karate is a way to connect yourself to yourself. Because of the trauma, there's kind of a disassociation ... because of the suffering, they cannot connect," said Fischer.
Fischer began teaching karate to women after retiring from competition, more than a decade ago. Since 2014, she goes yearly to a country where sexual violence is so widespread it's called the rape capital of the world'— the Democratic Republic of Congo. She works with the Panzi Foundation in eastern DRC, founded by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Denis Mukwege. Two years ago, she launched an NGO called Fight for Dignity. Karate not only helps women to heal, she says, but to regain their self-confidence.
"It's incredible how it can impact their relations with their children, with their boyfriend, with the way to find job after, the relations with the others because we are not only brain, we are body. And when both are connected, it's very powerful," said Fischer.
She began teaching karate at The Women's Home a year ago.
"I think that karate is a very good sport for these women. It gives them better self esteem," said Dr. Hatem. "And Laurence has special work around the vagina and clitoris and all the sexual assaults. And it's very important for our patients to work on their own bodies through this trauma."
Fischer and her students gather for tea after every class. It's a time to get to know each other, and to make friends. Thirty-year-old Aissata Djiakite has been going to The Women's Home for more than a year.
She says when you're sexually attacked, you feel weak and battered. But with karate you really want to live. She says Fischer is extraordinary — she helps the women emerge from their pain, and gives them back an appetite for life.
Fischer plans to return to the DRC, not just to work with Panzi. She wants to help some of her female graduates there to start karate classes in their villages — so they can help other women ... fight for dignity.