Empowering our girls to face a violent society

As another UN International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women nears, an organization in Jerusalem teaches girls, women to face these harsh realities with inner strength and be part of solution.

People look at a message projected at Rome’s Campidoglio palace, as part of International Day to End Violence Against Women, on November 25, 2013. (photo credit: REUTERS)
People look at a message projected at Rome’s Campidoglio palace, as part of International Day to End Violence Against Women, on November 25, 2013.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
November 25 is the International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women.
The UN secretary-general has coined the name “UNiTE” for the campaign, and has been rallying the citizens of the world to the cause.
According to UN figures, 70 percent of women worldwide experience violence in their lifetime, be it rape, physical or emotional abuse, or harassment.
Beyond the tragic emotional and social damage this causes society, studies also show the economic repercussions of this violence. Intimate partner violence alone drains tremendous tax revenues for medical treatment, shelters, the criminal justice system and sheer productivity loss – in the US, an average of $5.8 billion.
In Israel, 60% of female sexual assault victims are under 18, according to 2013 figures from the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel. These same young women will one day provide the backbone of our nation. As in many other nations, media and cultural traditions teach girls in Israel to prefer the tools of domesticity and beautification to those of economic development, technological innovation and social justice. Advertisements target us with provocative pervasiveness to buy these gendered messages. Although there is nothing wrong with training girls to build domestic lives and care for their physical selves, we should be worried about the exclusive value we place on such merits through frameworks that often result in disempowerment.
In 2003, Yudit Sidikman and Jill Shames created the nonprofit El Halev to address these issues through martial arts and self-defense. El Halev works with girls and women of all ages, ethnicities and physical capabilities, with the aim of empowering students through methods that strengthen self-awareness and physical, verbal and emotional responses to violence.
If you walk into El Halev on any given day when classes are in session, you will hear the fierce voices of women and girls shouting, “No!” Tali Rachamim is a graduate of El Halev’s specialized IMPACT self-defense course.
“I was in a battered women’s shelter,” she recounts. “Yudit and her assistant Rivka came to teach us self-defense....
Before, I couldn’t speak at all, I had no self-confidence. I didn’t know that I was capable of shouting. Saying ‘no’ was hard for me all my life, but now I can say, “No!” and shout, and make it clear” that certain things are unwanted.
Many older participants, too, have mentioned that before completing the organization’s courses, they never knew how to set boundaries or say “no.” This was simply not taught to them as young girls.
Three years ago, El Halev started the Lioness Club (Moadon Leviah), which trains girls ages 12 to 17 to cultivate leadership qualities, confidence and open-mindedness through martial arts and self-defense programing. Shames, a Leviah instructor, believes that “in order to change society, sometimes you have to build a new society.”
The club creates support groups as well, providing a safe environment for talking about experiences of violence, and encourages participants to do so.
Shames’s group in Nof Ayalon is performing a skit to share what they have learned with other youth groups in the area.
“Youths are more likely to listen to other youths,” she says. “If you want to learn something, there’s nothing like teaching it.”
Shames puts hours into finding ways to incorporate the latest research on developmental exercises into the program.
With girls as young as seven, class opens with bowing and meditation, in the spirit of traditional martial arts. She explains that meditation is one of the most important exercises the instructors teach. By learning how to calm the mind and breathe mindfully, the girls develop awareness of their surroundings and mental space for clear decision- making.
Another exercise that she does is the “Wonder-Woman stance,” in which the little ones line up, put their fists on their hips and stand tall and open. Shames walks by the girls, asking them to say their names loud and clear.
“You can be proud of that name,” she responds to each of them.
One of Sidikman’s trademark initiatives is “Break a Brick.” Participants face a cement brick and are asked to punch through it. On November 4, a coalition of 10 organizations addressing violence against women in Israel gathered in El Halev’s event hall for a series of inspiring lectures and discussion groups. Ideas were exchanged and connections made, all in the hopes of formulating a united front of Jerusalem nonprofits working to empower women.
At the end of the conference, Yudit brought in her bricks.
Women of all body types, old and young, stepped forward and shouted, “I am breaking this brick!” using the momentum of their bodies to smash through the challenge. Each person left that day with renewed inspiration to enact social change in Israel, and a piece of brick, wrapped in red ribbon, to take home as a reminder of the strength we carry within us. 
The writer is an aspiring optimist who thrives on the energy of young, dynamic Jerusalem. She is a hot-off-the-press olah and has recently joined the El Halev team in the effort to empower the women of Israel to build a better future.