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With domestic violence rates in Belarus among the highest in Europe and few legal protections, some women are turning to self-defense classes.
On an early Saturday morning some 15 women gather in one of the ubiquitous,gray, three-story buildings on the outskirts of Minsk.
There are coffee and snacks to grab, and chairs are already evenly placed in a circle. The spacious room where we meet is a gym in its everyday life, but we aren’t here to get into shape.
The next two days will be part martial arts lessons, part support group.
This is the essence of Wen-Do: a method of self-defense and assertiveness training to empower women to fend off harassment and speak up for themselves.
Courses such as these are relatively new and not yet widespread. There are many reasons why the idea of women’s self-defense is not more popular in Belarus: a wide variety of gender-based stereotypes, a tendency to blame the victims of violence, and a persistent belief in “a strong man’s shoulder.” And yet every second woman suffers different forms of violence, with nearly every third being abused physically.
Wen-Do covers a wide variety of physical and verbal techniques. Women learn how to fight back and respond to wrist and arm holds and how to escape bear hugs and choke holds.
Olga Laniewska. Courtesy photo.
Far from being just about self-defense, Wen-Do also focuses on consent, awareness, and avoidance of threatening situations. We will gain these skills during the next two days.
The group members are all different. Tall and short. Blond and dark-haired. Students and professionals. We are in our 50s or just turned 16. We met just a moment ago, but already feel friendly toward each other.
But when Olga Laniewska, our trainer, suddenly asks us to shout, we stare at each other in confusion. It is a women-only course. But however safe and comfortable the atmosphere is, it is not easy to start screaming when you’re surrounded by near-strangers.
Olga urges us on:
“Attackers know perfectly well that women often feel too ashamed to react when they are sexually assaulted. But your voice is your weapon. Use it.”
This time, we don’t hesitate to shout.
Breaking Blocks and Stereotypes
Natalia (her name has been changed upon request), a PhD student, needed to resolve an issue with her doctoral adviser. He would abuse his position by constantly asking her personal questions about her family and her husband. She felt dependent on her advisor but wanted to stop this unwanted attention.
At Wen-Do sessions, women share real-life experiences of physical or verbal aggression, whether from strangers or known attackers. Harassment on the street. A violent husband. An assault at school. A co-worker who crosses too many boundaries.
Women then discuss and role-play situations to build self-confidence and react in a way that works best for them.
In Natalia’s case, she practiced her posture, body language, voice, and use of specific words until she was happy with the outcome.
Participants in a WenDo class in Minsk. Courtesy photo.
As she told me a few months later, when her adviser approached her again, she was able to stop his questions politely but firmly.
“He never behaved in the same abusive way again,” Natalia says. “He probably understood that I wouldn’t allow this anymore.”
Curiously, she says, their relationship has actually improved since then.
“What was your husband’s reaction when you signed up for the course?” I ask.
“He is very supportive and open-minded,” she says. “But sometimes he doesn’t understand why Wen-Do and the subject of domestic violence, since our relationship is not abusive.” When she was 19, someone tried to rape her. Although she was able to escape, the fear stayed with her.
Another student, Alina, 24,experienced domestic violence at home. Wen-Do taught her how to set boundaries and not allow others to violate them. Now, a few months later, she tells me it is still difficult for her to say “no” without guilt. But she is learning.
At the end of each day’s session, the participants break a piece of wood with a blow of the hand. Just as in martial arts, this is a vital part of the training, when a person shows their strength and courage. For those in my group, this was a moment of empowerment and resolution.
“It boosts your self-confidence levels. Without it, it’s impossible to defend yourself,” group member Hanna Parkhomenka says.
Natalia, Hanna, and Alina are among 900 women who have taken a Wen-Do course in Belarus since the first one almost four years ago.
“Does this mean they all know where to hit an aggressor?” I ask Laniewska, the only Wen-Do trainer in Belarus and one of very few Russian-speaking trainers internationally.
“It’s not just about kicks and blocks, though I teach those too,” she says.
“Ideally, after a woman learns Wen-Do, she doesn’t allow herself to be abused or attacked in the first place, because she is aware of her boundaries and what behavior she finds unacceptable,” Laniewska says. The main focus of Wen-Do is to avoid threat and assault if possible. During the sessions, we talk about how this is even more important in Belarus, where the legal concept of self-defense is not fully elaborated.
In 2016, Laniewska received her Wen-Do training certification in Poland, where she had lived for 15 years, through the Autonomy Foundation, an NGO. It took 18 months and many interviews and conversations with psychologists until she was certified. She then moved back to Belarus, partnered up with Radislava, an organization that helps domestic violence victims, and began offering self-defense classes – free, when Radislava can raise the funds. When there’s no money from sponsors, Olga gives paid workshops. If a group can’t afford it, she works for free.
Wen-Do can be adapted for all ages and abilities. Courses typically last 12 hours, spread over two days. Laniewska teaches mostly in Minsk, although she has also given classes in Hrodna, Navapolack, Brest, and other cities outside the capital.
Studies Show Positive Outcomes
Empowerment through self-defense is not new. Yet its positive effects are clear, advocates say.
In Canada, where Wen-Do originated in the 1970s, the method was incorporated into a sexual assault resistance program designed for first-year female students at three Canadian universities. The results, published in 2015, were impressive. According to the authors, the training was correlated with a 46-percent reduction in completed rape and a 63-percent reduction in attempted sexual assault in the following year, compared to a control group of students.
A similar study of college students who took a self-defense class, conducted by Jocelyn Hollander of the University of Oregon, came to similar conclusions. The report said women who took the class experienced “significantly fewer sexual assaults during the subsequent year than women enrolled in other classes at the same university.”
Women’s self-defense training appears to have positive benefits in other societies as well. In 2014, Stanford researchers found that adolescent girls in the slums of Nairobi reported a more than one-third drop in rapes in the year after taking a 12-hour self-defense program.
In Europe, although the Council of Europe advocated free self-defense training for girls and young women more than 20 years ago, little has been accomplished on the national level, a European Parliament report stated in 2016.
In Poland, municipal governments or employers have sometimes financed Wen-Do courses.
Wen-Do supplies the tools to build self-confidence and assertiveness.But it is no cure-all, explains Agnieszka Biela, a psychologist and a certified Wen-Do instructor based in Sosnowiec in southern Poland. “A woman can’t be in a situation of active domestic violence, because it requires more targeted help and can have the opposite effect, making her feel disempowered.”
Wen-Do practitioners need to know when to call on outside help, Biela says, recalling a woman in one of her classes who was living with an abusive partner. “Luckily, she told us about the violence at home, and we could refer her to an intervention center.”
Biela explains that from a psychological point of view, Wen-Do focuses on the ability of women to fulfill their human potential and encourages self-exploration. “We as Wen-Do trainers show a woman that she is an expert on her own life,” Biela says.
In a survey prepared by the Autonomy Foundation after one Wen-Do workshop, nearly all the 54 women polled said they could have avoided many threatening situations in adult life if given the opportunity to take a workshop during their teenage years. Half the women used the skills they learned within a few months after the training.
Focus on Prevention
Ilya Murashko is not happy that mostly men attend his self-defense classes in Minsk.
“Let’s face it: women need to learn how to protect themselves more than men. Together with the elderly and people with disabilities, they are more often assaulted than men,” he says.
In addition to classic Krav Maga, a fighting and self-defense method, Murashko teaches setting and communicating personal boundaries, and recognizing dangerous situations at an early stage. Sound familiar?
“Yes, it is similar to Wen-Do. Both are crucial for assault prevention,” he says.
The drawback, Murashko says, is that Wen-Do courses may be too short for women to master skills and make them a habit. That’s exactly what Olga Kutas, one of the women from my Wen-Do group, told me: “The effects of a single course could quickly get lost in women’s everyday tasks.”
But as Lena Bielska explains, while some physical defense tricks might be soon forgotten, as time goes on, the implanted seed of self-respect will grow. Bielska is a сertified Wen-Do instructor and a co-founder of the Lublin branch of HerStory, a nonprofit that works in the areas of gender equality and discrimination. She says that’s why it is crucial that a trainer focuses on women’s empowerment and confidence, not just martial arts. Besides, it happens that women participate in Wen-Do workshops several times and some go on to take an advanced course.
Bigger Toolbox Needed to Stop Domestic Violence
Assertiveness training is not easy to instill in a society that expects a woman to be sweet, mild-mannered, and meek. Women are supposed to handle problems without making a scene. They are brought up to be nice.
“Things are changing,” Olga Yanchuk says about the stereotypes and the social risks that lie in wait for a woman who stands up for herself.
Yanchuk, a sociologist, is the general secretary of the YWCA branch in Belarus, a non-governmental organization that advocates for women and offers leadership training. Yanchuk recently launched a project called Women’s Safety. Similarly to Wen-Do, the main focus is on boosting women’s self-esteem. The project offers paid online video lessons and personal consultations with a psychologist on personal boundaries and various forms of domestic violence.
As long as there is no law against domestic violence in Belarus – President Alyaksandr Lukashenka dismissed the idea as foolish last fall – Yanchuk believes it’s especially crucial for women to learn how to defend themselves and set their boundaries. “A woman learns how to listen to herself and her body. She can then more easily recognize the first signs of potential violence, tension, or discomfort.”
Yanchuk and her 8-year-old daughter have also participated in a Wen-Do course. “The fact that my daughter understands that she has the right and need to protect herself is the greatest outcome of the training,” Yanchuk says.
That, and the wooden block that she broke with her bare hand, which she brought home as her trophy, she laughs.
Hanna Liubakova is a freelance journalist from Belarus, currently based in Poland.