Empowering Women


Dr. Monique Winslow  PHD

“One who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be endangered in a hundred engagements. One who does not know the enemy but knows himself will sometimes be victorious, sometimes meet with defeat. One who knows neither the enemy nor himself will invariably be defeated in every engagement.” Sun Tzu


Being prepared to defend ourselves in any situation is a vital part of our survival. Whether we are engaging in military attacks or common everyday situations, we are faced with the possibility that at any moment our environment can pose multiple threats to our safety. Unfortunately, the need to prepare for and respond to individual threats to safety is experienced at a higher rate for young girls and women, not just in the United States, but in many countries around the world.

While men are more likely to be victims of violent crimes overall, women are five to eight times more likely than men to be victimized by an intimate partner. In fact, the Department of Justice reported that Black females experienced intimate partner violence at a rate 35% higher than that of white females, and about 22 times the rate of women of other races. In North Carolina, statistics for 2008 indicate that 75% of domestic violence homicides were women.

Statistics such as these are not meant to cause undue stress or fear for the reader. Rather it provides a benchmark for understanding the scope of the problem.

Psychological impact of violence against women: Primary and Secondary Victimization

After more than 30 years of research, it has become abundantly clear that violent attacks are both disturbing and traumatic. As a survivor of domestic violence, I am personally aware of how women, regardless of height, weight and age can easily become targets of attacks and assault. When attacks such as these occur we are often left feeling victimized and powerless, and that we are largely to blame for these incidents. As women, we are initially trained to believe that we should be complacent and pacifying, even beyond the face of danger. Such assertions cause us to dim our alertness and render us more vulnerable to subsequent attacks. It also increases the likelihood that women will remain powerless and leaving open the opportunity for the perpetrator to continue the cycle of abuse.

Fear is one of the most common reactions to victimization, and in fact, exacerbates it. Many victims report that their fears and nightmares persist long after the attack, creating a kind of secondary victimization. In some ways, secondary victimization can have more harmful consequences than primary feelings of victimization. Anger, outrage and helplessness, are all a result of our feelings of being victimized. These emotions, when triggered, can lead to aggression, hostility and potentially more explosive violence. Within this context, our existence is limited by the manifestation of our fears. Essentially, we have given away our power. Learning to defend ourselves, not only re-empowers us, but it helps us cultivate a deeper sense of personal freedom and the confidence in knowing that we can control our response to potential threats.

Self-Defense Training for Women: Victimization Prevention 

With the rising incidence in violence against women, many are seeking different ways to protect and guard themselves against life threatening situations. Self-defense is often equated to self-preservation and self-protection, particularly as it relates to responding or reacting to a force within our immediate surroundings that threatens our individual safety. It also means the use of strategies to defend or protecting one's own interests, property, ideas, etc. For many, particularly young girls and women, understanding self-defense techniques can reduce the risk of violence or harm that may be perpetrated by others who seek to violate our safety. Some researchers comment that self-defense/assertiveness training aims to prevent violence against women by strengthening their capacity to defend themselves. Tactics are meant to be practical, simple and useful in common situations and effective so all women regardless of age, size, physical strength can learn them. A study of 3,187 college females showed that victims who had pre-assault self-defense training were more likely to say that their resistance either stopped the attacker or made him less aggressive. Others indicate that personal defense and assertiveness training works to raise the level of “rights” consciousness. It helps give women confidence that they have a ‘voice’ and deserve the right to speak up and affirm themselves.

Through their research, Kidder, Bowell, and Moyer suggest that ultimately, through self-defense training women can learn to take responsibility for the solution and prevent their own victimization. More specifically they point out that ideally society would alter the cultural assumptions that give rise to attacks against women. However, they further contend that “Until that day arrives…, women (and men) can learn techniques of victimization prevention that may not change the world, but will change their behaviors and chances of being hurt.”

Training in traditional Taekwondo: More than just martial arts

Whether its for fun, fitness, self-defense training or other reasons, the recent surge in female students enrolled in Taekwondo is a testament to its growing popularity among women. In fact the number of women being trained in Taekwondo has nearly tripled in recent years and currently represents 30% of all practicing students. So why is the study of martial arts, in particular traditional Taekwondo important for women?

When most women are asked about their reasons for enrolling in martial arts instruction, such as Taekwondo, their initial responses generally include: self-defense, confidence, and physical strength. As a student of traditional Taekwondo, my reasons centered around the belief that this was the avenue for not only learning self-defense, but also a vehicle for making the mental shift away from victimization. Not only does traditional Taekwondo teach fighting skills, but physical, spiritual and psychological strength. This provides a more holistic approach to life, which gives us the capacity to draw from our experiences, and use them to support our personal growth and development. Personally, throughout my progression in rank and belt levels, I realized that self-defense was one small part of a much larger picture. It was about perseverance through mental and physical challenges, changing behaviors, learning self-control, achieving balance and creating a sense of community.

In addition to sharing her experiences about the mental and physical benefits of Taekwondo for women, Debz Buller asserts that, “it helps people remain calm and balanced, thus improving mental outlook.” As an extension of the physical and mental benefits, she comments on the social-emotional impact of Taekwondo. “…building a sense of community is the secret to martial arts success. People stay involved because of the camaraderie… You forge connections, deep heartfelt connections with others. You go through physical, mental, and emotional difficulties and support and applaud each other.”

Thus, traditional Taekwondo is more than just about learning the art of combat, it also provides the opportunity for self-knowledge and collective awareness. These are equally important in understanding how to avoid potential threats to our safety, and reduce our chances of being hurt. This type of knowledge, according to Joyce Nower, “deepens our awareness and our assertiveness, the two qualities that help protect us from violence, by enhancing our behavior as victors, not victims.”

Becoming empowered and building on our strengths: From victim to victor 

Becoming empowered is about discovering our individual strengths, understanding our interconnectedness with each other, overcoming our fears and maintaining a positive attitude. It’s also about moving ourselves to the next level -- taking risks, assuming responsibility for our personal growth and development in order to experience a new sense of personal freedom. We need to step out of our boxes of victimization and helplessness, and experience a boundless existence where we are empowered to achieve our greatest dreams.

“A woman is like a teabag, you never know how strong she is until she’s in hot water” – Eleanor Roosevelt

So in what became a new sense of energy, determination and dogged perseverance to achieve my goals of achieving the rank of black belt, I was determined not to give up. Following this pursuit I learned many important lessons along the way. First I realized that left unchecked, our fears can take over our spirit and paralyze us from taking responsibility for our past and have the courage to make a stand for our own humanity, speak up for what we believe in and seek integrity in everything we do. Second, achieving victory over victimization means releasing the feelings of shame and guilt, and replacing them with confidence and power. After all, self-knowledge, combined with the capacity to understand self-control and the power to defend ourselves is the greatest weapon in self-defense.

 Brecklin & Ulman
 Kidder, Boell, Moyer (1982)