In 2015, when we started FairFight, we believed in both Zimbabwe and India as promising places for the development of martial arts in communities of vulnerable women. The possibilities were vast – but we were looking at the future through the lens of the present. We were about to learn that continuity is a foolish assumption to make. The world order we grew up with burst at the seams in 2016 and there seems to be no end to the unravelling. Thus, we welcomed the 2020s in the colossal global headwinds of the climate emergency, a global nationalist surge and massive movements of social discontent. These trends hit our project locations hard: an unprecedented drought is wreaking hunger and misery in Zimbabwe, with rolling power cuts, fuel shortages, food shortages, a mass exodus of human capital, and a return to fighting for survival that Zimbabweans thoughts they had left behind ten years ago. Meanwhile, in India, social discontent and nationalist fever grips the country, stirring ethnic and religious tensions that culminated last month in riots that became violent in Uttar Pradesh, with fatal outcomes in Varanasi. The political climate in India is especially hostile towards foreigners, and particularly foreign NGOs.
Let’s be frank: had we faced such headwinds five years ago, we would not have been able to get the FairFight projects off the ground. It is therefore a credit to everyone involved that our projects survive despite the situation. A credit to the volunteers who keep traveling to Marondera and Varanasi and investing in the cause despite the risks, a credit to the local teams who lose neither faith nor energy in delivering the projects, and a credit to our supporters who so generously support our projects financially – even when it feels that all we’re doing is fire-fighting. For instance, when we called for help to deliver food packages for the girls in Zimbabwe who were not able to finish an hour’s training because they were hungry, we received nearly double what we asked for in donations. Back then, it seemed like the hunger situation in Zimbabwe was the worst of our problems. Little did we know…
In late December 2019, we received notice that the Disha programme had to close temporarily due to certain regulations on homes for minor children. The decision was taken with immediate effect to send the girls back to their families. Fortunately, the timing coincided with the period when the schools close for the winter holidays, thus limiting the disruption for the girls. Act & Help is determined to do everything in its power to rehome the girls in a boarding school setting in Varanasi, as soon as possible. This new status for the Disha project would allow all the girls to finish their schooling under the protection of the Disha umbrella, even after they reach 18 years of age (which was not the case in the previous setup). When the new status comes through, there will be no more exclusions, no more excessive control from the authorities, but a new tie to a very good public school which will welcome all the girls together. Things are already in motion on that front, but it will take some time, possibly a couple of months, to get this arrangement in order. In the meantime, Act & Help continues to provide the girls with financial support for food and education. From our side, we have already determined that Mary Stevens, our project coordinator, will travel to Varanasi to check-in with the girls as soon as the local situation makes this a feasible option. We are looking into options to restart karate classes for 13 of the girls still living in Uttar Pradesh. In the meantime, Devesh and Pankaj have secured all of our equipment.
To say that the situations in Zimbabwe and India are setbacks would be an understatement. The girls are not a project to us, we care about them more than we care to put into words. Not a day goes by that we do not think about them. And while the situation is emotionally challenging for everyone, it is that human connection that forbids us from giving up, that makes us roll up our sleeves and say “right, let’s do this”, one problem at a time. All the while, we keep an eye on our ultimate goal: to empower women through martial arts. While we fight for the girls at Nagle House and Disha, Mary presses on with the “transition to university” self-protection seminars for Mala girls in Guria. Mary will also gather and host a focus group of students and working young women to inform the contexts of the self- protection strategies to adapt effectively for the local context. She has drawn some support for the project from the global self-defense community. Meanwhile, Tinashe Munemo, with my support, keeps pushing for women’s health in Zimbabwe’s most impoverished communities – women’s prisons and townships, and we forge ahead with our plans to build an effective shitoryu karate community in Zimbabwe with the support of Sensei Gonzalo Villarubia.
For us, for our girls, and for you, our supporters, the 2020s will be the decade of resilience. The months and years ahead will be small steps forward, and occasionally, big steps back. This is the story of FairFight and Act & Help, but really, it’s a microcosm of the story of humanity and the choices we will all have to make in the near future. Do we give up in the face of adversity, do we let ourselves be swallowed whole by problems so huge that the escape our control, do we turn inwards, listen to our fears and build walls? Or do we take small victories where we can find them, find solace and resilience in human connections, find power in changing one life at a time in a hurricane of challenges, and open ourselves to our sisters and brothers in the knowledge that we’re all part of this key chapter of human history?
What FairFight has to give is not an all-or-nothing – martial arts is a way of life, and once that flame is lit, it stays within us, no matter the adversity. Yes, the lives of our girls in Zimbabwe and India are difficult, but they have the power of karate in their bodies and their souls to carry them through. And we will be there for them, one way or another, no matter what, because they are part of our martial arts family. Together with you, our supporters, we will build the resilience to ride out the storms. After all, is that not what martial arts teaches us? Onwards, gambatte!
Dr. Ginie Servant Miklos
Chair of the Board of FairFight