Kristy Hitchens was forty years old when she tried taekwondo for the first time.
She’d been sitting on the sidelines watching her son train in the sport for five years and on whim, decided she should give it a go herself.
It was carpe-diem type of moment, she recalls, but looking back, Kristy thinks the style of training involved with martial arts helped her realized exactly what she was capable of.
Now, she’s the leader behind the Pink Belt Project, a martial arts scholarship program that helps women who are survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault access training in either taekwondo, karate, or jiu jitsu, over a 12-month period for free. This year, the program awarded 20 scholarships to women around Australia.
Kristy explains to Women’s Agenda that she had seen a close friend go through the horror and intense stress of domestic violence, and began researching the benefits of martial arts and its potential as a useful therapeutic tool.
She came across a phenomenon known as ‘the martial arts effect’ – where research shows through the process of learning to defend oneself, women can experience an internal shift resulting in changes to the way she sees herself.
“The results can be a new sense of empowerment, improvements in confidence and self-esteem and even for some women, reduction in the severity of symptoms like anxiety and depression,” Kristy says.
Kristy realized that the women who might benefit most from training in the martial arts may be unable to afford it, as it can be quite an expensive endeavor. In mid-2018, she set out to crowdfund $2,000, hoping one woman in need could have the opportunity to train for a year for free.
Kristy raised enough funds to support two women into martial arts that year, and the program has continued to grow exponentially since then. In 2019, the Pink Belt Project awarded five scholarships to women, and it 2020, the number rose to 20.
Each of the women awarded a scholarship through Pink Belt train at their local martial arts club, and Kristy says she has seen an increasing number of instructors coming on board with the program, agreeing to sponsor scholarships at their own club. The project is also supported by a number of other corporate and business sponsors.
“This is a side passion for me that I juggle around my family and work but besides word spreading via my social media campaign, the key is the support of the martial arts community,” Kristy said.
Some of Australia’s most successful female Taekwondo athletes have thrown their support behind the Pink Belt Project. Lauren Burns, a 2000 Olympic Gold Medalist, World Champion Carmen Marton and 2018 Commonwealth Champion Kate McAdam are ambassadors for the project, and use their profiles to raise awareness and funds.
Kristy says having these sportswomen on board is like having “my own bunch of Avengers assembled out front”.
“Their support goes to show that even at the highest level of the sport, there is recognition and acknowledgement of the benefits of martial arts for women and a real desire to see more women have that opportunity.”
Scholarship applications for 2021 are now open until November 16.
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 000.
If you need help and advice, call 1800Respect on 1800 737 732, Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.