Newcomer, Indigenous women in Winnipeg find power in self-defense

A group of newcomer and Indigenous women gathered together on International Women’s Day to learn the power of self-defense.

The event included about 30 participants from North End Women’s Centre, the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba and Ma Ma Wi Chi Itata Centre.

Before getting into combat mode, everyone shared a meal together and participated in a prayer led by drum group Buffalo Gals.

“This is a great program especially for us women … this will help us get stronger,” said Hawa, a 26-year-old participant originally from Sudan.

Speaking through an interpreter, she said she felt the class would also help her feel safer.

Participant Habsa Ali, originally from Somalia, said the class made her feel stronger and happier. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

“I feel like if I do learn those moves, I can be very strong and nobody can harm me in the streets.”

On Tuesday evening, the women gathered at Sergeant Tommy Prince Place to learn practical skills, situational awareness and how to defend themselves.

The class was put on through Winnipeg Safe City Initiative, which exists to reduce and prevent sexual violence against women and girls in public spaces.

Winnipeg was selected as the first city in Canada to join the United Nations Global Safe Cities Initiative in 2013, with representation from the city and province to combat sexual violence.

As Tuesday’s class progressed, the participants went from being tentative to bursting out laughing with each punch they threw. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

“We know, statistically, Indigenous women are far more likely to be targeted by perpetrators who express sexual violence, as (are) immigrant or newcomer racialized women,” said Crystal Van Den Bussche, co-ordinator for the Winnipeg Safe City Initiative.

“First, we’re going to learn how to punch!” said instructor Vivian Santos, a fitness buff and provincial arm wrestling champion who also serves as city councillor for the Point Douglas ward.

Prior to demonstrating the self-defence skills, Santos shared her own story as a Taiwan-Chinese Canadian and some of the racism and abuse she experienced in her earlier years.

Santos said through going to the gym, then studying a style of Korean martial arts called Hapkido for eight years, she built confidence and discovered her strength to fight back.

Tuesday night’s class involved about 30 participants from North End Women’s Centre, the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba and Ma Ma Wi Chi Itata Centre. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

“I just come here to celebrate for International Women’s Day,” said Consolee Umuhozo, a Congolese mother of two who came to the class with her mother and several friends. Her mother, Regine Nyiragasirimu, said she was proud to be there with her daughter and the other women, learning skills for self-defence.

Santos worked with each woman in the group to help them throw a proper punch and get out of holds, a process that began quietly and tentatively, but after nearly two hours, ended with each woman punching hard, moving with purpose and shrieking with laughter.

Habsa Ali, originally from Somalia, said the class made her feel stronger and happier.

“Please invite me every time,” she said.

Participants learn how to get out of an attacker’s hold. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

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