Growing up, Maria Makatrevich often faced bullies on the streets of her native Kazakhstan. Born in the city of Kokshetau, Makatrevich moved a lot with her family a child. Her father died young and she didn’t have a brother, leaving Makatrevich to defend herself instead.
“I just didn’t like to lose, so I had to learn how to fight,” she says. “Sometimes I had to protect myself, sometimes my mother or a friend needed my protection.”
Now aged 26, she’s mastered karate, army hand-to-hand combat, boxing, kickboxing, and has even taking on sporting events designed for fire-fighters. She regrets none of it. “I’ve tried different disciplines, but what connects them all — what any exercise gives you, really — is confidence. You feel better physically and mentally; you become more determined,” she says.
It’s that same spirit of confidence and determination that Makatrevich wants to pass on to her students. Working with civil society group Uran — a non-profit committed to fighting domestic and children abuse in Kazakhstan — she offers free self-defence classes across the country. On Instagram, her DMs are full of requests to bring the workshops to different cities and towns, and recently she was contacted by representatives of the prestigious Nazarbayev University. “Even on campus, there is a risk of being attacked,” Makatrevich says. “But female students don’t want to take this anymore.”
Almost none of the women attending workshops have ever practiced martial arts; many have never been to the gym at all. “Of course, you can’t teach them much in one session,” Makatrevich admits. She’s since launched her own Telegram channel, to make it easier for women to keep practicing on their own. She is happy to see that women start speaking up, even in the country’s less progressive regions. “In Kazakhstan, the mentality can be very different depending on where you are. In the north, in Almaty, there are lots of amazing activists and feminists who are leading the debate, but in the south, it is considered normal for a husband to beat his wife. The problem is that women see it as normal, because they were raised this way. That’s what we’re trying to change.”
Maria knows that many women are still afraid to open up, so she makes a point of listening to her students. “At every class, I say that I will be available after class if anyone wants to tell me about their experience. Sometimes you can see that someone is suffering from abuse just by looking at them, but they are not ready to share their story yet. I don’t make anyone talk about it unless they’re ready.”
Activists from Uran are also present at the workshops to offer legal advice. Aside from the crippling social stigma, it is not easy for women in Kazakhstan to report violence or abuse. The country decriminalised domestic in 2017, leaving it a mere administrative offence. Additional legislation in January 2020 pushed for tougher penalties for systemic domestic abusers — but the changes also saw that fines given out for battery resulting in “minor trauma” were scrapped altogether. Now a first-time offender can get away with just a warning.
“The situation is catastrophic,” says Makatrevich. “There are absolutely no consequences for abusers, so they are free to do whatever they want. But women are rising up.” The new generation makes her proud, and despite government policy, she sees a change in the society. “It’s not only survivors who come to my workshops, it’s also young girls who don’t want to become victims like their mothers did. They will fight.”
“The situation is catastrophic ... There are absolutely no consequences for abusers, so they are free to do whatever they want”
At her regular boxing, kickboxing, and sanda classes, Makatrevich trains everyone: men, women, children. “I always try to teach them, especially kids, my philosophy: you don’t want to do harm with your strength. You want to protect those who are weaker.” In the future, however, she’d also like to run daily self-defence classes — at least until a time where such classes would no longer by but necessary. “I do this so that men understand that women are not the ‘weaker sex,’” she says. “At the end of the day, I just want equality.”