One of Uganda’s most accomplished female boxers, Hellen Baleke, is using her skills in the ring to teach women to empower and defend themselves.
Baleke has made it her mission to teach women in Katanga, one of the biggest slums in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala, the importance of self-defence.
Innocent Kapalata, the coach at Katanga’s Rhino Boxing Club where Baleke teaches and trains, explained that more and more young women in the slum have been signing up to box as a result of women often becoming victims of violent crime.
At the age of 16, Baleke was groped by a boy on her way home from school. In an attempt to fight him off, Baleke was attacked and returned home with a bloody nose. It’s a common experience for young women in Uganda — according to the United Nations, more than 1 million Ugandan women are exposed to sexual violence every year. The unfortunate experience drove her to take up boxing so that she could have the skills to protect herself in the future.
“I started boxing because I didn’t want any man to stand in front of my face,” Baleke told CNN. “In Katanga, you have to fight if you want to survive, most especially girls.”
Baleke’s uncles taught her how to defend herself, and now she’s using those skills to help empower other young women. When she decided to pursue boxing, Baleke found a make-shift gym in Katanga, where she began training and teaching others.
Baleke, now 33, has been boxing professionally for 15 years. At the 2019 African Games, she won a bronze medal and became the first Ugandan woman to bring home a boxing medal in 18 years.
Her success has inspired women in Katanga to take up boxing.
“I admired her since childhood, and I want to become like her. I want to become a senior boxer in Uganda,” Christine, one of Baleke’s students, told CNN.
Not only is Baleke teaching women skills in the boxing ring, she also owns a tailoring business where she hires young girls and teaches them how to sew. The pro boxer aims to show young women the importance of financial independence and stability beyond a boxing career.
“If you [are] on the sewing machine making something, you can make money,” she told CNN. “You cannot box for your entire life.”
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has put boxing and her tailoring business on hold, Baleke told CNN that she hopes to continue training with her girls soon. The 33-year-old plans to open her own gym and start a fashion company one day.
“It doesn’t matter where you are or where you live… I live [in] the worst slum… but it did not stop me from following my dreams,” she said.