Shape Your Life boxing program helps empower women who've experienced violence
'We don't connect as victims, we connect as powerful women,' says program participant
Ten years ago Tania Jivraj applied for a job as coordinator of a new, first-of-its-kind boxing program for those who identify as women who've experienced violence.
She didn't get it.
Instead she was asked to participate. Now, a decade later, after graduating from the Shape Your Life Program and going back to school for both her Bachelors and Masters of Social Work, the job is all hers.
"The program gave me confidence to reapply for the job and other jobs," said Jivraj, who started the position in August.
"One day I was leaving the gym and I realized I was walking in the middle of the sidewalk. I was taking up room and if people were walking towards me I wasn't trying to give them space, I wasn't saying sorry, I just felt so strong."
There is an important point that both participants and organizers are quick to clarify. Why would you have survivors of violence box each other? Well, they don't — ever.
"We don't hit anyone and you don't hit anyone back," said Jivraj. "Just the idea of having a punch come toward your face can be quite triggering regardless of your past. That's not part of the program."
We don't hit anyone and you don't hit anyone back. Just the idea of having a punch come toward you can be quite triggering.- Tania Jivraj, Shape Your Life program coordinator
Instead, participants learn how to safely hit things like heavy bags, speed bags and hand pads.
Self-empowerment is at the heart of the Shape Your Life program, according to its co-founder, Savoy Howe.
"I get to witness women being transformed in a very short period of time," said Howe, who is also the head coach of the program and owner of Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club, the gym it calls home in the Carlaw Avenue and Gerrard Street East area.
"Sometimes women are told they're the weaker sex, or they're a piece of crap. Here they get to see very quickly that's not the case," Howe told CBC Toronto.
The program has a lot of anecdotal evidence to support that change. Since Shape Your Life started in 2007, more than 1200 women have graduated from the 14 week program and many have shared their stories with organizers.
Now a decade in, one of the co-founders is starting to study the outcomes of the program with new funding from the federal government.
"This is the first time we get to measure the actual kinds of health outcomes that we're seeing and hearing about through stories," said Cathy van Ingen, a kinesiology professor at Brock University.and one of the co-founders of the program.
"We're actually measuring the way this program is making women more resilient, increasing their social supports, increasing their mental health, increasing their physical health, so they walk out of here different people than when they walked in."
Van Ingen says most of the women who go through the program have experienced domestic violence or different kinds of interpersonal violence.
"Some of the women we have are refugees who've come from other countries in conflict where there's been lots of violence in their lives," said van Ingen.
Others like Katharine Peters, a current participant, have been involved in other programs over the years but say nothing has been like Shape Your Life.
"What I really like about this program is we don't connect in our stories, we don't connect in our pasts or what happened to us or anything like that," said Peters.
"What we connect with is in our possibilities and in our strength and in our power, which is such a different way of working with people who have been victims or survivors of violence. We don't connect as victims, we connect as powerful women."
Peters says you could tell that everyone was a bit timid at her first class. She was nervous because she knew she'd be the oldest person there at 60, but several weeks in a lot has changed.
"It's a different group of people than it was," said Peters. "There's a camaraderie and a friendship and a joy amongst us all and a power in us that wasn't there before.
"We were a bit meek and we're certainly not meek anymore."
Van Ingen puts some of that difference down to the fact that there aren't a lot of places where women who've experienced violence are allowed to express anger about it.
"Shape Your Life is really about getting your body back under your own control," said van Ingen. "When you experience violence you lose control of your body for that period of time."
Ten years after participating in the program Jivraj still feels sad sometimes when she realizes how strong she really is.
"I wish I'd known a long time ago," said Jivraj. "But it gives me great strength to know that I can show my daughter this, and know that she can have this strength now, she doesn't have to wait till she's 40 to figure it out."