When Sunny Graff was 17-years-old in the late 1960s, a friend was murdered while she was hitchhiking. Filled with sadness – and rage – Graff didn’t feel she had anywhere to turn.
“I was angry and there was no place to put that anger. There were no rape crisis centres, there were no women’s shelters,” says Graff, an American who has now lived in Frankfurt for over 35 years. “Women were not on the political agenda.”
Aiming to change that, Graff became involved in the fledgling women’s movement when she started studying at Ohio State University. Focusing her energy on stopping violence against women, she helped found a rape crisis centre and began martial arts training
When arriving a decade later in Frankfurt on an academic scholarship, she founded a self-defence school for girls, expanding it eventually to include females of all ages.
“Every woman and every girl needs to know how to defend herself,” says Graff, whose school includes girls as young as five to women in their 70s. “Violence against us has always been a problem, it continues to be a problem, and we have a lot more work to do before we can end violence.”
Teaching to all walks of life
Graff still teaches everyday at Frauen in Bewegung (Women in Movement). The school, situated in Frankfurt’s Nordend neighbourhood, counts over 300 regular students in classes such as Lapunti Filipino Stickfighting, Tai Chi, Self-Defense, Yoga, Functional Exercise and Violence Prevention.
Girls training at 'Frauen in Bewegung'. Photo courtesy of Sunny Graff.
They also teach taekwondo classes to a group of women and girls in a local mosque, and two courses a week at an elementary school.
Graff also just wrapped up teaching a two-year course to 15 new self-defense instructors, 13 of whom are women of colour, or with migrant backgrounds.
“German society is getting more and more diverse, and we need to have trainers who are role models for the girls and women they train,” says Graff.
Most of the classes are taught in German – with instructors who can assist in English – but sometimes they will include translators if the students are refugee women.
Strong and empowered students
The school’s growing pool of alumni often give Graff feedback about how much the classes have benefitted them.
Sometimes it’s because the information they have received has helped them stop a potentially dangerous situation before it escalates. And often it’s because the information they have received has helped them feel strong and empowered in their day-to-day lives.
These women, says Graff, often send their daughters to the courses years later. The school’s impact often reverberates outside of Frankfurt, with alumni having taught or opened their own schools in other cities.
“It is important for me to teach women and girls in a safe space where they are just accepted, where they can just walk in the door and be themselves, where they don’t have to worry about being judged for who they are, for their bodies or for their sexuality, for their skin colour, for anything,” said Graff.
“They can just train, get strong, have fun, and gain confidence.”