Sick of Harassment, One Woman Just Created Uganda’s First Female-Only Gym

Mildred Apenyo was told that a woman who lifts weights isn’t sexy—her business is out to prove otherwise.

Mildred Apenyo instructs a fitness class at FitcliqueAfrica. (Photo: Edward Echwalu)

Jun 2, 2015· 3 MIN READ
David McNair is an award-winning reporter and editor based in Charlottesville, Va. He runs the hyper-local news site The DTM and his fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review.

Health and fitness might be on the rise in Uganda, but for many women, heading to the gym can mean having to put up with harassment and discrimination at predominantly male establishments. For 25-year-old Mildred Apenyo, the unwanted attention—and opinions—from men at traditional gyms was getting so tiring that she decided to open FitcliqueAfrica, Uganda’s first women-only gym.

“The energy in mixed gyms wasn’t working for me,” says Apenyo, who quit her job as an advertising copywriter and founded the gym early last year in the capital of Kampala. “What I experienced was both unwanted attention from the men at the gym and too little attention from the trainers who didn’t understand why a woman wanted to lift weights or kickbox. Once, a man said to me that he wouldn’t find me sexy anymore if I lifted weights. What the hell?”

Prior to the opening of Apenyo's gym, women were generally encouraged to do only aerobics, she says. But at FitcliqueAfrica, they have a range of options, including strength training, dance, Afrikan Yoga, and kickboxing. “[Women have] a space where they can support one another on their journeys to not just fitness but wellness as well,” she says.

Mildred Apenyo. (Photo: Edward Echwalu)

Another major draw: the gym’s self-defense classes for women, which Apenyo says are one of its most important offerings. The classes began as courses in mixed martial arts but turned into specialized self-defense programs.

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“While it was great to teach these self-defense maneuvers to women, we felt they weren’t focused on the kinds of safety problems that the women faced on a day-to-day basis,” Apenyo says. “So we broke down the groups of women we wanted to reach out to—university women, market women, women who work in corporate environments—and created curricula that we have now started to test and refine. Everybody needs to be able to defend themselves from physical, emotional, and psychological attack.

Thirty-nine percent of Ugandan women ages 15 to 49 experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime, according to the 2006 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey. Apenyo acknowledges that many women fear for their safety, but she’s not interested in blaming men or playing the victim. Instead, she hopes her classes will encourage women to be proactive about their safety.

(Photo: Edward Echwalu)

“When solutions are prescribed and preached at people, they aren’t absorbed, they aren’t owned,” she explains. “We want to offer a tool box for empowerment that they can reach into when they need it.”

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Self-defense isn’t the only way Apenyo is shaping the path for young women’s empowerment. As a female business owner, she has joined the ranks of other enterprising women throughout the country, and says she has yet to experience any discrimination. In fact, 48 percent of all small- and medium-size enterprises in Uganda are owned by women, according to a 2012 study. Like Apenyo, who has a communications degree, more educated African women are helping to shift traditional attitudes about the roles of women and venturing out on their own with creative businesses.

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“Maybe we’re just more enterprising,” says Apenyo. “My guess is that more women have had to take on the role of single-handedly providing for their families, leading them to seek more sources of income.”

Last year, she was one of 500 young people selected out of a pool of 80,000 in sub-Saharan Africa to attend the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, studying at the University of Notre Dame and then working at the Small Business Administration in Washington, D.C. As part of the program, she attended a three-day summit where she interacted with other fellows, met with professionals from IBM and Coca-Cola, and attended sessions with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

“This fellowship was the first time I really felt African, as opposed to just Ugandan,” Apenyo says. “Living and studying with 25 fellows from 17 different African countries showed me that we are more similar than we are different, and borders are really just a colonial construct.”

As for FitcliqueAfrica’s future, Apenyo hopes to grow her business and the number of thriving women’s gyms in Uganda and across Africa. Her near-term goal is to also begin personal safety orientation classes in all major universities in Uganda. Odds are you’ll see her on the speaker circuit too: Earlier this year, Apenyo gave a TEDx Talk in Kampala about the right to space, freedom, and body ownership.