My German career: ‘Women and girls need to know how to defend themselves’

American in Frankfurt Sunny Graff has spent over 35 years helping women become stronger and more confident - while having fun in the process.

My German career: 'Women and girls need to know how to defend themselves'
Sunny Graff has been teaching self-defence courses for over 35 years. Photo courtesy of Sunny Graff.

When Sunny Graff was 17-years-old in the late 1960s, a friend was murdered while she was hitchhiking. Filled with sadness – and rage – Graff didn’t feel she had anywhere to turn.

“I was angry and there was no place to put that anger. There were no rape crisis centres, there were no women’s shelters,” says Graff, an American who has now lived in Frankfurt for over 35 years. “Women were not on the political agenda.”

Aiming to change that, Graff became involved in the fledgling women’s movement when she started studying at Ohio State University. Focusing her energy on stopping violence against women, she helped found a rape crisis centre and began martial arts training

When arriving a decade later in Frankfurt on an academic scholarship, she founded a self-defence school for girls, expanding it eventually to include females of all ages.

“Every woman and every girl needs to know how to defend herself,” says Graff, whose school includes girls as young as five to women in their 70s. “Violence against us has always been a problem, it continues to be a problem, and we have a lot more work to do before we can end violence.”

Teaching to all walks of life

Graff still teaches everyday at Frauen in Bewegung (Women in Movement). The school, situated in Frankfurt’s Nordend neighbourhood, counts over 300 regular students in classes such as Lapunti Filipino Stickfighting, Tai Chi, Self-Defense, Yoga, Functional Exercise and Violence Prevention.

Girls training at 'Frauen in Bewegung'. Photo courtesy of Sunny Graff. 

They also teach taekwondo classes to a group of women and girls in a local mosque, and two courses a week at an elementary school.

Graff also just wrapped up teaching a two-year course to 15 new self-defense instructors, 13 of whom are women of colour, or with migrant backgrounds.

“German society is getting more and more diverse, and we need to have trainers who are role models for the girls and women they train,” says Graff.

Most of the classes are taught in German – with instructors who can assist in English – but sometimes they will include translators if the students are refugee women.

Strong and empowered students

The school’s growing pool of alumni often give Graff feedback about how much the classes have benefitted them.

Sometimes it’s because the information they have received has helped them stop a potentially dangerous situation before it escalates. And often it’s because the information they have received has helped them feel strong and empowered in their day-to-day lives.

These women, says Graff, often send their daughters to the courses years later. The school’s impact often reverberates outside of Frankfurt, with alumni having taught or opened their own schools in other cities.

“It is important for me to teach women and girls in a safe space where they are just accepted, where they can just walk in the door and be themselves, where they don’t have to worry about being judged for who they are, for their bodies or for their sexuality, for their skin colour, for anything,” said Graff.

“They can just train, get strong, have fun, and gain confidence.”

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Women’s Day demos held across Spain but banned in Madrid

Small demonstrations were held across Spain on Monday to mark International Women's Day -- except in Madrid where gatherings were banned to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Women's Day demos held across Spain but banned in Madrid
A small group of women take part in a Women's Day demo in Valencia on Monday. Photo: José Jordan/AFP

Demonstrators gathered in front of the regional parliaments of Andalusia, Catalonia and Navarre with protests planned for dozens of other cities.

But events in Madrid were called off after the Constitutional Court rejected rights groups’ appeals against a ban on demonstrations, imposed last week by the Spanish government in a region that has one of the country’s highest infection rates.

Last year over 100,000 people marched in Madrid, including three ministers from Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s government who subsequently tested positive for Covid-19.

Days later his government imposed one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns as infections and deaths soared.

Conservative opposition parties blasted Sanchez for allowing the march to go ahead, blaming it for a spike in infections in Madrid.

Despite the ban, a few dozen people gathered in Madrid’s central Puerta del Sol square, standing at a distance from each other as they held up signs with feminist slogans.

Speaking at an official event to mark the day, Sanchez said “much work remains to be done” to advance women’s rights.

“The agenda for change that our country needs is the feminist agenda, with people’s lives at the centre, public services and the fight against all forms of male violence,” he added.

Spain has a thriving feminist movement which in 2018 saw five million people taking part in a nationwide strike on International Women’s Day to call attention to gender disparities.

But the movement has faced a backlash this year, with several street murals celebrating prominent women vandalised over the weekend in Madrid and elsewhere.