Healing Gaia

Self-Defence Program for Women with Lived Experience of Abuse

Jujitsu program to enable women who have experienced trauma to learn how to defend themselves and feel empowered.

By Doreen Nicoll
Published May 17, 2018

May is Sexual Assault Prevention Month. It's a time to remind people that one in three Canadian women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. That's 460,000 sexual assaults a year, or one every 17 minutes.

The majority of victims will be under 25 years of age. Most will know their attacker. The majority of these crimes will go unreported. At the end of the day, 0.3 percent of perpetrators are convicted.

The fact that over 33 percent of women will experience sexual assault is extremely disturbing, but the numbers increase dramatically for marginalized women. Over 57 percent of First Nations, Metis and Inuit women and 83 percent of disabled women will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime.

This crime has nothing to do with passion, love or affection. Sexual assault results from an imbalance of power that enables abusers to use coercion and force to control and abuse their victims.

Men are the perpetrators 99 percent of the time and in 80 percent of cases the assailant is a fellow employee, acquaintance, religious leader, health care provider, friend or family member.

Sexual assaults occur in private homes 80 percent of the time, with an astonishing 36 percent of the assaults happening in the woman's own home.

The effects of sexual assault last longer than other crimes, but one Halton woman is using her lived experience to help survivors empower themselves.

Six years ago, Krystal Nagel left an abusive marriage. "Shortly after leaving I dropped into a Jujitsu class. I wanted to feel strong and able to defend myself," recalls Nagel.

"The first part of the class was great and I was excited to continue. Then, I found myself pinned in a position very similar to what had happened during my assault and I experienced a flashback, got emotional and unsettled. I made it through the class but the idea of overcoming that over and over in a public setting made me not want to go back."

Nagel looked for classes designed for women with lived experience but soon discovered there were very few programs designed exclusively for women and no classes that accommodated past trauma.

It would be years later before the opportunity to get trauma informed self-defence classes would become a reality. "I was part of a panel of women speaking about our experiences with domestic violence. Afterwards, one of the men in the audience approached me to thank me for speaking and expressed his desire to do something about the problem," Nagel recounts.

"When he explained he was a Jujitsu coach I told him about my experience and my wish for a program that would enable women to have a safe space to learn how to defend themselves and feel empowered."

The pair spent hours discussing the issues and the psychology involved and eventually designed trauma-informed Jujitsu classes for women with lived experience of sexual assault.

A year after starting the course, the group decided monthly sessions would provide more structure while giving women time to plan and a reason to commit. The classes have reached record levels and often include multiple generations of women from the same family.

"Women are welcome come out to one session or every session. If you do miss a class that's fine because everything is reviewed at the beginning of each class before additional skills are added," said Nagel.

The classes are open to any woman who has experienced stalking, abuse or harassment, which Nagel believes "is almost every woman." To accommodate how individual woman are feeling and to build time into the class to address triggers, things move at a slower pace. A quiet area is also available for women to step away if they become overwhelmed.

Participants are not required to share or defend their experience but, as Nagel has discovered, "Classes are led by the participants - what they want to work on and what they feel comfortable with. This often leads participants to describe an assault in order to find out what they can do differently next time they find themselves in that situation."

There really is something for everyone in these classes. "We have had everyone from teenagers to women in their 70s participate," says Nagel. "Only children are prohibited from participating because the disclosures can be quite unsettling."

However, women are encouraged to bring their children because Nagel knows from experience, "How hard it is for women to be away from their children when they have experienced trauma and because childcare can be a major barrier." Older children play in an unsupervised space while childcare can be arranged for younger children given advance notice.

As a safety precaution the time and location of the classes is only shared once Nagel has communicated directly with each woman because as Nagel knows, "Some participants are still in danger and we want to create a space where everyone can relax, feel safe, and focus."

For more information contact Krystal Nagel at: krystalnagel@gmail.com

Doreen Nicoll is a feminist and a member of several community organizations working diligently to end poverty, hunger and gendered violence.

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