Toronto boxing program for female survivors of abuse gets federal funding

A group picture of some of the club’s participants. Photo from Facebook/Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club.

A program providing boxing training to women who have survived violence has been granted new funding from Canada’s Public Health Agency but hopes for one more thing from the federal government: a visit from the Prime Minister.

Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club houses Shape Your Life, a program run by Brock University professor Cathy van Ingen that gives transgender and cisgender women who have experienced violence a physical outlet, a source of empowerment, and a connection to an extended network of resources.

Last Friday, it was announced that Shape Your Life would receive more than $420,000 in funding from Canada’s Public Health Agency.

Founded in 2007, Shape Your Life is a partnership between van Ingen, boxing coach Savoy Howe of Newsgirls, and Toronto’s Opportunity for Advancement. The program gives its participants not just a community and a place to develop physical strength and fitness but also a visceral way to work trauma into part of their healing, van Ingen told Yahoo Canada News.

“So many women we’ve taken here have had access to talk therapy or talk-based programs, but their bodies are left out of it. They felt displaced from their bodies, which is where they experienced trauma,” van Ingen said. “This program can this be a tool to get them to a place where they’re in a better place for their healing.”

Van Ingen said boxing is ideal for a program like this because women at all levels in their physical fitness and abilities can find a way to participate. But it also gives those women a healthy outlet for their anger when dealing with what they’ve experienced. It’s also a place to feel strong as they work through it, she said.

“People are angry, and boxing is one of the few places in sports where you can accommodate your anger,” van Ingen said. “It’s safe to do so, it’s welcome to do so, and there’s not a lot of other places like that.”

Shape Your Life is free for participants, who are never hit themselves but are trained in what van Ingen refers to as “the outputs of boxing”: work with bags and hand pads, and chasing in the ring.

“They don’t ever get hit back,” van Ingen said. “That’s a really important of our program because everybody in our program has experienced violence.” Participants may have experienced domestic abuse or come out of situations with interpersonal violence, she said, or are refugees or immigrants who have left violent environments.

The just-announced funding will allow for research that will examine the efficacy of the program, van Ingen said, by surveying participants in the beginning, middle, and at the end of the 14-week program.

“It’s going to really let us get a better picture of what improvements in mental health and quality of life that this offers to people,” van Ingen said. The program coordinators already know that many participants continue with Newsgirls after finishing Shape Your Life. The funding also allows for the hiring of a project social worker who can help participants link with other services, she said.

Along with the boxing lessons themselves, Shape Your Life provides short-term support like access to food and longer-term help like connections with other social services. The women in the program are given TTC tokens in order to ensure they can get to and from Newsgirls, as well as snacks.

One of the goals for van Ingen and Shape Your Life now is to help expand the program beyond Toronto. Her team has already spoken with Indonesian counterparts who want to set up a similar program there, van Ingen said, and Australian writer and amateur boxer Mischa Merz has been in touch about starting a similar program in her country. The funding will help with the creation of manual for Shape Your Life that can be used to expand the program, she said.

So where does the Prime Minister come in? The women of the program posted a YouTube video last month inviting Justin Trudeau – known to include boxing in his own fitness routine – to pay Newsgirls a visit.

Trudeau responded in a video message and said that he couldn’t attend the funding announcement in person, but hoped to train with them soon.