Uganda’s 1st Women-Only Gym Offers A Safe Space For Women Away From Harassment

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Female-only gyms are quite common in some parts of the world. They are often created as a place for women to work on their health and fitness away from judgmental and sometimes pervy characters that seem to be common in many gyms. The reason they are created is often out of frustration of a lack of spaces where women can be themselves and not be judged.

Or in more extreme cases, like Glowfit, the first fitness center for women in Saudi Arabia, it is a place where women don’t have to fear being arrested for participating in an activity that is forbidden for women.

Over in Africa, a young woman has created the first female gym in Uganda as a way to keep women away from harassment and work on their health and wellness in safety. Entrepreneur and writer Mildred Apenyo, 25, is the founder of Fit Clique Africa based in Kampala, which is dedicated to the safety and fitness of African women.

It initially started as a Facebook page, but it has now grown into a fully-fledged and popular organization boasting of legitimately qualified trainers who teach girls yoga, dance, kickboxing, self-defense classes and more.

The idea was born out of Mildred’s own experiences at other gyms where she was not treated as an equal person.

“A man attempted to throw a dumbbell at my head because I had refused to budge from the machine I was using. He insisted that his training required use of all three machines and poor little female me had to wait until he was good and done. When I refused, he lunged at me with the dumbbell and had to be restrained,” she told the Daily Monitor. It sounds like someone at that gym needs anger management classes…

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Aside from discrimination from men and a certain dumbell-throwing incident, a new anti-pornography law that was brought into Uganda in 2014 was another major factor in Mildred’s quest to open a female-only gym.

The bill, which bans mini skirts and other clothing deemed to be sexually explicit, has been seen by some as a threat to women’s rights and some even say it resembles a similar law that was brought in by the mad dictator Idi Amin in the 1970s. The law also places more regulations on the type of content allowed on TV, such as celebrity performers wearing skimpy outfits or TV shows featuring women showing too much flesh. The most unfortunate part is that the new law has given license to certain types of attacks on women by vigilantes who think their appearance violates the law, which is something that makes Mildred angry.

“This bill that talked ill of women’s bodies fueled my passion further to create a place where women could feel safe to be themselves,” she told Africa.co.

She was also on the receiving end of sexual harassment and other men laughing her off when she tried to enter the gym as they thought she might’ve been “lost” looking for the aerobics class. Clearly there is some major stereotyping going on in her community and what Mildred is doing with Fit Clique is attempting to break this down.

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Mildred started lifting weights in September of 2014, but up until February 2015 when FitClique was officially launched, she was still working at her full time advertising job and only blogging about her experiences in the gym. She un-apologetically calls herself a feminist and has realized the importance of giving women the message that being fit, strong and independent is necessary in a society that seeks to keep women within narrow parameters.

“I realized we lived in a society that does not even want to take care of us. Either dress like this or… I also came to the knowledge that there are things a grown human ought to be able to do; provide for and protect themselves,” she said.

The first venue she found to start hosting classes was in Ntinda, but after they found out it was only for women and couldn’t understand why, they backed out of the deal. Fortunately Mildred found a second space to rent in Bukoto and it became the first female-only gym in Uganda.

Part of her journey was learning how to transition from a a full-time job to running her own business, which she says wasn’t easy, but definitely worth it for what they are offering the women in Kampala. For Mildred, the most important thing was helping women from all walks of life be able to come to a place they feel safe and catered to exclusively.

“You cannot go in looking for money. I believe it is essential to have a space where women can work out in a distraction free, lewd comment free, ogling free environment with trainers who know how to work with ladies. I also believe that it is necessary for the ultra-conservative women. When you are doing something essential and helping better the lives of others, I believe you will always make money eventually,” she said.

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Being the daughter of a lawyer father and a businesswoman mother, and the eldest of 6 children, Mildred already had a leg up in society that most women do not, but it allowed her to work hard and not sell herself short with her aspirations.

“My mother was a serial entrepreneur. I do not remember a time when she was not dabbling in some business or other. She was also crazy about fitness and not in pursuit of weight loss. She would just jog, sometimes taking all of us children with her. People tell me I have the same energy. [My Father] still desires that I do law and become a lawyer but recently he came by the gym, looked around and called to tell me he was impressed,” she said.

Ultimately her dream is to open more FitClique gyms across Africa and for it to become a recognizable place that empowers women and girls.

“It is our dream to have personal safety content added to the curricula in Sub-Saharan universities to subconsciously empower girls to own their space, feel more alive, confident, assertive and deserving of the space they occupy. We want to expand our services to women of all walks of life, who need their own space to exercise, strength train and practice yoga. We hope to open another space next year,” she said.

And like any other entrepreneur, she learns from her mistakes but is adamant that you shouldn’t be defined by them.

“I do it all by trying and failing – I fail at a lot of things. You will still remain powerful as long as you persist and persevere. Allow yourself to feel that pleasure. Don’t focus on flaws – find people who are powerful in ways that you are not. Be introspective to find ways you are powerful and ways you are not, and find people to support you.”


 

 

 

 

 

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