The Pink Belt Project was started by Kristy Hitchens in 2018 in an effort to help survivors of domestic and sexual abuse regain their confidence.
Content warning: this piece deals with the topics of domestic and sexual assault.
Like many Australians, I did a year of martial arts as a kid. While I found it enjoyable, I gave it up in favour of team sports and haven’t really thought much of it since. It didn’t seem that much deeper than any other sport—these are the rules, these are the techniques, this is how you get better. In reality, martial arts have much more of an impact on those who train than simply physical fitness and the ability to defend oneself.
One in six Australian women experience domestic violence—horrifying numbers no matter how you look at them. A feeling of helplessness is common when seeing these statistics, but for West Australian Kristy Hitchens it was her sparring partner’s experiences with violence in the home that saw her leap to action and create The Pink Belt Project.
Launched in 2018, The Pink Belt Project gives scholarships to women who have experienced domestic violence or sexual abuse. These scholarships provide recipients with a year’s worth of training at martial arts clubs across the country. They also offer scholarships in the USA.
“I was going through this process of discovery, training for myself. But I had a training buddy who I became very good friends with. At some point I unfortunately came to realise she was being impacted by a violent husband. She disappeared from training at one point, and what happened is, she had set herself up independently but couldn’t afford to come to training anymore” Hitchens explains.
Initially, Hitchens was simply looking to help out a friend by crowdfunding her training partner’s fees to keep her in the sport.
“I was very passionate about the fact that she needed taekwondo at that point in her life. She needed the community of supportive women, she needed the stress relief, she needed that empowering feeling.”
It’s this comment from Kristy that makes it so clear—this project is about far more than simply self defence.
Hitchens began taekwondo at the age of 40 after spending years watching her young son train: “I sat on the sidelines with all the other mums playing with my phone and pretending I was watching”. But with some changes in her personal life, Hitchens decided to step out of her comfort zone and join the class herself.
“I was inspired to get my ass off that bench and step onto the floor as a student, which was way out of my comfort zone at age 40 and not something I expected to be doing.” But persevering through those early unsettling classes proved fruitful for Hitchens, “it really didn’t take long into the process where I started to feel changes inside.”
Intrigued by these changes, Hitchens did some research and came across a phenomenon referred to as ‘the martial arts effect’.
“The idea is that through the process of learning to defend themselves, a woman experiences kind of an internal shift,” Hitchens explained.
It’s this internal shift that The Pink Belt Project aims to provide women across the country.
This “internal shift” comes via an “active form of meditation” as Olympic gold medallist and taekwondo champion Lauren Burns describes it.
“It’s about pulling you into the present moment. You have to be in the present to get the most out of your training, and particularly when you’re training with someone else… if you’re daydreaming for a split second, it’s too late,” Burns explains. “It is like mindfulness because that is also being present.”
Burns, who won Australia’s first Olympic gold medal in the sport of taekwondo at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games,is an enthusiastic ambassador of The Pink Belt Project.
“One of the things that really appealed to me was offering a scholarship. Especially for women who might not have the funds available at that stage in their life to be able to start martial arts.”
Burns says that while martial arts training provides physical growth, it can also have a positive impact on other areas of life.
“It gives a real sense of confidence, the self-discipline required to learn the moves and progress through the belt levels. It’s the respect, the discipline, the confidence and having tangible skills… they’ve done research with martial arts, and it’s the sense of ability to self-regulate, and to have better cognitive function and decision making time… all of these things transfer to so many other areas of life.”
Project creator Kristy Hitchens also speaks to this, “I think a lot of people would think the primary objective for this kind of training is learning to defend yourself. But really, that’s one small aspect of the benefits. The benefits go much wider and deeper than that. It is the camaraderie of the other women that you’re training with. All these aspects of confidence and self-esteem, and then that flows on to other aspects of your life, whether it’s your work or your other relationships. It tends to just have this ripple effect throughout.”
Hitchens is an impressive woman, and even this brief chat makes me want to storm my local martial arts studio the moment Victoria’s lockdown allows. Since joining that class at 40 and feeling like a “Jolly Green Giant”, Kristy has achieved her First Dan Black Belt—on the same day that her son earned his Second Dan Black Belt—and both have challenged themselves by making the leap to karate, “so we’re back to white belt!”
Applications for the 2021 edition of The Pink Belt Project close on November 16. For more information on how to apply or support the project, visit The Pink Belt Project.
Family and domestic violence support services
Lifeline (24-hour Crisis Line): 131 114
1800 Respect National Helpline: 1800 737 732
Women’s Crisis Line (NSW): 1800 656 463
Safe Steps Crisis Line (Vic): 1800 015 188
Men’s Referral Service: 1300 766 491
Mensline: 1300 789 978
Relationships Australia: 1300 364 277