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Esther Phiri, Boxer from Zambia: “A symbol of female empowerment”

April 9, 2010

Esther Phiri, Image via ESPN.com

Whether or not you’ve heard of Esther Phiri–she’s a force to be reckoned with, quite literally and metaphorically. Esther Phiri is a professional lightweight boxer from Lusaka, Zambia. She was born on January 1, 1987 in a low-income part of Lusaka where her family struggled to meet ends meet. She had her daughter, Eunice, at the very young age of 16 years. By chance or not,  she was trained to be a boxer through a local HIV awareness program that combined health education and sports called “Africa Directions.” By now you might be thinking of Million Dollar Baby references, but not so fast . . . this story is real and takes place in Africa.

She was the only girl in the boxing program and despite boys making fun of her, she continued to box until her talent led her to train with Zambian boxer champion Anthony Mwamba. In an article about Phiri from ESPN, author Jim Caple says that:

Phiri also had to endure people heckling her and telling her she was wasting her time. A woman boxer? In Zambia? She wasn’t Hilary Swank and this wasn’t some Clint Eastwood movie. Get real. “People used to laugh at me,” Phiri says. “They would say, ‘She’s mad. She’s mad!’ And they said I was just following the men to the gym.”

Boxing in Zambia–or the world for that matter, is generally considered a “boy’s thing.” The idea of physically beating someone up as a sport is stereotypically considered “masculine.” Especially coming from an underdeveloped country where gender equality lags far behind that of developed countries, being a woman boxer is not always easy. However,  Esther is a testament to why that gender stereotype does not hold true, and she explains that boxing is what helped her realize it:

I made a mistake when I was young and had a child. I found something to do in my life. I was looking for something to do in my life and I found it in boxing. I’m keeping my family happy. I’m building a life through boxing.

A woman can work and be somebody. They don’t need to depend on a man. (from ESPN; emphasis mine)

Esther Phiri fights (and WINS) against Germany's Elina Tissen Global Boxing Union Female super featherweight title in April 2008, Image via ESPN

Phiri has won several titles in lightweight boxing including: WIBA Women’s International Boxing Association light welterweight title in November 2009, Global Boxing Union Female super featherweight title in April 2008, and WIBF Inter-Continental Super Featherweight Title in March 2007. Past President Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia praised Esther for “demonstrating her capability to succeed regardless of the many challenges and obstacles that are currently prevailing in the area of sport in Zambia and also announced that Phiri would be given a fully furnished three bedroom house for retaining her title against Petrova” (from Women’s Boxing).

I admire women like Esther Phiri who are not only able to succeed in what they do, but who also go against gender norms because of what they love. We can only hope that there will be more women boxers like Phiri in the future.

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