Addressing violence through empowerment

An integral aspect of any person’s health and well-being involves feeling a sense of personal security. Unfortunately, for many people, this sense of safety is not a given.

In Canada, where nearly 200 women are killed every year, violence against women is a significant issue facing society.

Acknowledging the need for people to feel safe on campus, in their communities and in their homes, the University of Manitoba Womyn’s Centre offers women’s self-defense classes.

Wen-Do, a combination of Japanese words meaning “women” and “the path,” was created as a response to violent street attacks against women in Toronto. A family of accomplished martial artists created a basic self-defense system that could be taught to any person of any physical fitness level. Amalgamating moves taken from an eclectic mix of martial arts, the Paige family designed Wen-Do specifically to be taught by women to other women. Their work in the early 1970s became very popular as thousands of women signed up for their introductory self-defense classes.

Now, almost 40 years later, Wen-Do is being taught across Canada, in the United States, in Europe and on the U of M campus by Jennifer Thorsteinsson, who has been teaching Wen-Do for three years on her own and prior to that was a student-instructor for three years. Thorsteinsson contends that the first step to addressing violence is through education.

“Education starts at a young age teaching individuals how to properly respond to each other, how to manage their anger in effective manners and how to communicate effectively with others. This is something that needs to be done within the home as well as within the school system [ . . . ] if an individual is experiencing violence within the home they will be more likely to perpetrate [violence] with others in the future. Thus, work has to be done to break the cycle of violence,” Thorsteinsson said.

Basic Wen-Do courses consist of 12 hours of class time and as the course progresses Thorsteinsson often observes a significant change in the participants. Not only do they become more confident, but their inner strength becomes more apparent as women begin to speak more assertively and express themselves.

“Most start very reserved and quiet. They have been socialized not to respond if someone is trying to hurt them or take advantage of them. By the end of our time together they are vocalizing with a greater amount of strength and power. They have learned when and how to respond to someone and how to get out of situations before they get very dangerous. The volume of the class on the first day compared to the last really demonstrates how much confidence they have gained,” Thorsteinsson explained

Not only do the self-defense skills that women learn in Wen-Do classes help to increase their sense of personal security, many tend to experience confidence in other aspects of their lives as well. Thorsteinsson has had students comment on the effects Wen-Do has had in increasing their confidence in personal relationships.

“Confidence is not something that is purely situational. If someone has gained confidence in one area it tends to extend to other areas. Many women have told me that they have been able to stand up for themselves at work and with family members after taking Wen-Do, but were not able to do this before the class.”

By increasing a sense of physical safety through self-defense, Wen-Do is contributing to the health of women on campus and in the larger community. Confidence is also being infused into diverse aspects of participants’ lives as they learn to become more assertive and gain a greater sense of well-being.