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Alexandra Schwappach/MEDILL     

Self-defense isn’t merely physical, it’s also psychological

by Alexandra M. Schwappach
May 10, 2011

What if a just little instruction could save your life?

Self-defense organizations around the nation urge people everywhere to understand their rights, responsibilities and, most important, how to protect themselves in dangerous situations. 


One, which has a Chicago presence, is the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation. The federation runs a self-defense program that is related to martial arts. 


According to Anne Kuzminsky, director of self defense for the federation, certification requirements are devised by women in the organization who have taught and used martial arts for years. They include three years training in a self-defense system, experience in conflict resolution and familiarity with data regarding violent victimization. 


Though some of the instructors do teach men, the program is mostly for young girls and women, Kuzminsky said.  Kuzminsky, who is based in Rhode Island, started teaching self-defense to women in 2001, has trained in martial arts since 1976.   


“The program is a framework for understanding violence and the culture of violence against women,” she said.


The program is psychological as well as physical.  Women are naturally inclined to not trust their own instincts and to second-guess themselves, Kuzminsky said.  This is just one of the reasons they are targeted for crime. 


“Women are so afraid of offending people that we don’t make the right decisions to protect ourselves,” she said.  “Our program teaches women a whole range of strategies—verbal and physical—to help them defend themselves.”


Self-defense is different for women than it is for men. 


“Men don’t often have their butts grabbed while on public transit,” Kuzminsky said. “And women need to understand when that type of thing is a threat.”


The federation, which has individual member schools across the world, works to empower women through a shared experience meant to empower and make them feel less alone, Kuzminsky said.


Though the terms self-defense and martial arts are often used interchangeably, Nancy Lanoue, founder of Thousand Waves Martial Arts and Self Defense Center in Chicago, said it is important to know that there are differences between the two. 


Martial arts, she said, is an art form that participants practice to become stronger, calmer and more compassionate people.  Self-defense is a term that describes a set of beliefs and attitudes accompanied by verbal and physical skills that help an individual stay safe and escape dangerous situations. 


Thousand Waves conducts workshops in many different settings, Lanoue said, including schools, non-profits and corporations.  The organization conducts classes for specific groups in addition to women, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups, who are frequently targets of attacks. 


“At Thousand Waves, we definitely view self-defense as a basic life skill that we wish everyone would have,” Lanoue said.  “Men and women both should know what their rights and responsibilities are.”