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Rapper sparks self-defense ‘bonfire’ amid Mexico’s record-high levels of gender violence

After years of authorities neglecting, refusing and being too inept to bring down Mexico’s extreme rates of gender violence, one group of women is taking their personal safety into their own hands, and teaching others to do the same.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — An average of 11 women are murdered each day in Mexico, according to the National Citizens Observatory of Femicide. 

Rapper Dayra Fyah did not want her teenage daughter to grow up in that context without possessing the tools she needs to survive something as simple as coming home from school. They live in Ecatepec, México state, one of the most violent municipalities in the country. 

In 2016, Fyah began to look for self-defense classes, but was only able to find martial arts schools catering primarily to men. So she decided to do it herself. Already accustomed to organizing rap workshops, she began to give courses in female empowerment and self-defense.

After her music and activism were featured in a 2018 AJ+ report, practitioners of Empowerment Self-Defense (ESD) in the United States invited her to learn the discipline. She went to a training in Costa Rica in 2019 and is now bringing what she learned to Mexico.

“I came back to Mexico and was the only person here who knew the practice,” said Fyah at a press conference for the first annual Latin America and the Caribbean Regional Meeting of ESD Instructors on Saturday. “And in such a big country with such a huge problem, I began to ask what else was needed.”

She combined what she learned at the ESD training with another self-defense practice known as Impact Personal Safety, and has now trained 28 other women in the country as instructors.

A woman knees a man wearing padding in the groin at a meeting of ESD instructors in Mexico City on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

“What started as a little flame has turned into a bonfire,” said Fyah. She hopes that fire will only keep growing.

ESD started in the United States in the 1970s and has since grown into a global model for women to protect themselves with a “violence prevention strategy to interrupt, respond to, and heal from interpersonal violence,” according to its website

Established in California in 1984, Impact Personal Safety is a high-intensity training model meant to simulate the adrenaline rush and immediacy of a real-life situation of interpersonal violence. Instructors wear protective gear so that trainees can practice at full tilt. The idea is to condition the body to react instinctively in such a moment. 

“When we have our adrenaline maxed out, the cerebral cortex creates programs, so by training with adrenaline pumping, they don’t have to think,” said Gabriela Rojas, ESD Global’s regional coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean. “It becomes a flinch reflex.”

Physical force, however, is meant as a last resort. The training also includes verbal drills for de-escalating a situation before physical violence ever breaks out. 

“The best fight is the one that never happens,” said Rojas. 

For her and the others spreading this model throughout Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, training women to use their voices is the truly revolutionary element of the practice. 

“We’re breaking the pattern of thinking that the aggressor is someone outside of our sphere of acquaintances,” said Rojas, adding that 80% of aggressions against women are carried out by someone they know, whether from work, school or in the home. These can be some of the most difficult relationships on which to place limits.

“We still have a colonial structure of submission, of handing ourselves over, of not raising our voices,” she continued. “So the most revolutionary thing about what we’re doing is learning how to occupy space, to be able to use our voice and say no. … Putting limits is revolutionary.”

Participants of the first annual Latin America and the Caribbean Regional Meeting of ESD Instructors practice verbal de-escalation of a threatening situation. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Testimonials from those who have trained in this model echo that sentiment.

“It was a very important change in me,” said Aracely Medina Ponce, an immigration lawyer from Chiapas, who attended a training in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, last year. She featured in a video of the meeting played at Saturday’s press conference. 

“To feel my body as something strong, as well as my spirit, as well as my mind, as well as my heart, to be able to find a safe place in my body,” she said.

Coordinator Rojas highlighted the growth the method has already seen in Mexico. She called it a “quantum leap” and said she is hopeful that it will continue to spread throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. 

Brazil is another country of concern, due to high rates of femicide and other violence against women, but the idea is to take it to all countries where it is needed. They also plan to cater it to migrant women, many of whom experience high rates of assault and sexual abuse during their journey north. 

Rapper Fyah has seen how the training makes women safer when they go back out into the world. The proof is in her daughter, who is now 18.

“It’s just the best feeling to know that she has these tools,” she said. “I know that after this, she’s going to get on public transportation and go to Ecatepec alone, and I’m not worried about anything happening to her.”

She believes that if the practice spreads, it could bring significant change to a region where women are suffering on a massive scale. 

“And if you do that in a number of other places, surely all of this is going to begin to be rebuilt from a place of love, because this is ultimately a practice of love,” she said. 

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