Refugee Women Learn to Defend Themselves

UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 6 | April
4, 2002

UBC technical writer takes Wen-Do to the far east.

By Helen Lewis

Teaching self-defence in a sun-scorched refugee camp is not your
typical vacation plan, but that’s how UBC technical writer Kirsty
Barclay spent her holidays.

Barclay worked with the Karen Women’s Organisation, which runs
development and relief efforts in refugee camps, to teach the self-defence
program Wen-Do to Karen women driven from Burma into Thailand.

"The Karen people have been fighting for their freedom for
more than 50 years, fleeing across the border from Burma into Thailand
fearing death, rape, forced labour, or forced resettlement at the
hands of the Burmese Army," Barclay says.

"There are more than 115,000 in the refugee camps along the
border – their houses have been burned, their livestock killed and
their crops destroyed.

"Many of the women have suffered traumatic experiences through
harassment and attacks by the military police, and domestic violence.
An important component of Wen-Do is the exchange of strategies by
telling stories of escape. At this class the women told some of
the most hair-raising success stories I’ve ever heard.

"This centre is in a no man’s land in northern Thailand,
and we had to hold the classes outside in the dirt courtyard,"
she says. "So we swept the debris out and kept the red ants
off us, put mats on the ground and had our lessons under the banana
trees with the chickens running around."

Barclay is the technical writing and programs adviser for UBC’s
Institute for Computing, Information and Cognitive Systems, and
in her free time she teaches Wen-Do. In March, she traveled to Japan
and Thailand to teach self-defence techniques and prepare future
instructors for advanced training.

Developed in Toronto in 1972, Wen-Do uses karate, jiu-jitsu and
aikido techniques refined to be effective and easy for women to
learn without the years of training and physical prowess needed
for a martial art, Barclay says.

She took her first Wen-Do course in 1990 and became an instructor
in 1992. Teaching Wen-Do to the young Karen women was a labour of
love for Barclay, who paid her own way and donated most of her clothes
to the desperately poor community.

"The women really seemed to click with Wen-Do. It was fun
and empowering," she says. "I see this as frontline work,
because being free from harm or fear of harm is the base line. Once
you’ve got that, you can start to emerge as a person. I like the
thought of being able to help people be more fully who they are."

Before Thailand, Barclay spent eight days in Tokyo, where she
taught Wen-Do classes funded by the Tokyo Train Riders’ Assoc-iation.
Women came from as far as Hiroshima and Osaka for the 15-hour courses,
which helped fund her work in Thailand.

"Japan is really ready for women’s self-defence," Barclay
says. "They’ve made huge progress in recent sexual harassment
cases – it’s being taken much more seriously. My classes in Japan
included women of all ages, survivors of abuse, gender studies students,
feminist pioneers, school teachers, mothers and daughters."

Barclay has secured funding for another trip to Japan in August,
where she will assist an advanced teacher from Toronto to train
Japanese Wen-Do class graduates to become instructors.

Barclay hopes to run a Wen-Do course at UBC this spring.