WomenStrength teaches thousands of women ways to end, avert bad situations

In the auditorium of a Portland community center, more than a dozen women are punching the air, kicking mats and yelling loudly enough that their words echo off the walls.

To a casual observer, this might seem like the newest fitness craze. But there are no casual observers, and this is much more than a gym class. The women are learning skills that could help them save a very important life Ñ their own.

They are participants in WomenStrength, a free, local program designed to teach basic self-defense skills to women in a safe environment.

'I think self-defense should be taught to every woman and girl, whether or not they can afford it,' says Stephanie Reynolds, director of WomenStrength. 'Virtually by being a woman or a girl in our culture, you are at risk to have something happen to you. So learning self-defense is as important as learning how to get out of your house if there's a fire or how to call 911.'

Success in secrecy

Since 1979, more than 18,000 women between ages 13 and 90 have learned self-defense and personal safety techniques through WomenStrength. The only program of its kind in the country, WomenStrength is funded by the Portland Police Bureau and is offered free to any woman who wants to take it.

There's just one catch Ñ the participants are asked not to talk about what they learn. The moves are kept hush-hush to ensure the women's safety and to give them the potentially lifesaving advantage of surprise.

'We never allow men in the classroom, and we do not let people take pictures of the skills,' Reynolds says. 'And we strongly encourage women to keep their skills private from any man in their lives and any female intimate partners.'

'We're not man haters,' Reynolds is quick to add. 'We're just cautious.'

The caution is for good reason. While most women are careful when they're out in public alone, or when they're with strangers, they tend to let down their guard around people they know Ñ who are more likely to be dangerous to them, Reynolds says.

'The biggest fallacy people have is that they're safe with an acquaintance,' Reynolds explains. 'Sure, women are attacked by strangers, but the reality is that 85 percent of women are attacked by someone they know.'

Taking charge of situations

Reynolds estimates that more than half of the women who take the class have already experienced a traumatic event such as rape or assault.

One such participant, who asked not to be identified, has taken the class twice a year for the past four years. She says the program has helped her deal with the physical and emotional trauma caused by her experiences.

'I had been raped a lot growing up, and I always had the fear that it might happen again,' she says. 'I wanted to have the physical and verbal skills to protect myself. A lot of people I've talked to in class have similar issues. We all wish we could have known as young girls what we know now.'

In addition to physical self-defense skills, participants learn how to handle difficult situations Ñ from strangers standing too close to them on the bus to someone pressuring them for sex.

'People come to this class for physical skills Ñ they want to be able to deal with the guy who jumps out of the bushes. But a lot of what we teach is assertiveness,' says Ericha Cross, who has been a WomenStrength volunteer instructor for six years. 'Even I used to be so afraid of making a scene, and now I'm not afraid to yell if I feel uncomfortable.'

Although learning self-defense is important, Reynolds says women also can protect themselves by trusting their instincts, staying aware and being unafraid to speak up.

'Learning self-defense is not a panacea,' Reynolds cautions. 'It's not going to solve every problem, and it's no guarantee that you're going to be safe. But learning and practicing how to defend yourself in a class can really help you hone your skills and increase your chances of avoiding or ending an attack.'

Contact Shanna Germain at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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