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Uganda’s women-only gym is about more than just fitness

"Just walking on the street, a woman will be harassed by multiple men and yet we, as a people, haven’t even considered giving women psychological and physiological tools to deal with such instances. We are trying to change that," says Mildred Apenyo, founder of Uganda's women-only gym.

“Just walking on the street, a woman will be harassed by multiple men and yet we, as a people, haven’t even considered giving women psychological and physiological tools to deal with such instances. We are trying to change that,” says Mildred Apenyo, founder of Uganda’s women-only gym, FitcliqueAfrica.

Mildred Apenyo started Uganda’s first women-only gym after a man at a local fitness centre attempted to throw a dumbbell at her when she refused to give up a piece of equipment she was busy using.

This experience, as well as often being harassed by trainers and other men while working out, triggered an urge to tackle gender issues in Kampala’s gyms. A wish which took a practical turn.

FitcliqueAfrica, launched in March 2014, was her answer to the problem. Here Apenyo and her team strive to create a secure and empowering environment for women to train comfortably.

How we made it in Africa spoke to Apenyo about the beginning of this unique endeavour and what it does to offer women a safe, accepting place to work out.

Tell us how this all began?

My interest in fitness began in 2012 when running long distances helped me overcome the anxiety problems I’d been facing at the time. Learning that doing particular things with my body could alter my outlook on life – that changed everything for me.

I started a Facebook page, Fitclique256, in September 2013. At the time it was a platform where I was documenting my personal fitness and wellness journey. I remember I’d just started strength training and it was my first manifestation of my feelings that safe spaces for women to work out and support each other were necessary..

And how did this Facebook page evolve into an actual gym? 

I put a lot of thought into the starting of FitcliqueAfrica. Our first step was the Facebook page because even though the business aspect was still absent, we really wanted to engage people. The idea came from the need for such spaces to exist. We had also experienced so much violence towards women due to the way the media and our leaders misinterpreted the Anti-Pornography Bill. It was heartbreaking and, as an activist, I really wanted my protest to mean more, to initiate change. It was simply the next step to take – find a space, create a steady programme and register as a social enterprise.

What do you offer your members?

We operate using monthly packages. We offer classes on all days of the week and people can choose to buy anywhere from four, eight or 12 classes in a month. They can also pay for full-month packages, but we know usually a person won’t attend gym every day. Our system is designed to ensure members attend all the classes they pay for.

We offer a wide variety of classes: strength training, African yoga, aerobics, kickboxing and personal safety, and babyrobics where women with children aged three to 12 months can enjoy a fun and specialised workout while bonding with their babies.

Describe some of the challenges, and how you overcame them?

I always say that I was an accidental entrepreneur, but now I’m hooked. Before FitcliqueAfrica I was a copywriter in an advertising firm. I was also a columnist in one of the national newspapers. I knew nothing about business or the inevitable process of making mistakes and failing. The regular rigors of starting a business hit me hard, and it wasn’t until the Mandela Washington Fellowship for young African leaders that I began putting them in context. I was on the entrepreneurship track and at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.

What needs are you addressing?

We are addressing the need for a fitness and wellness company that doesn’t fixate on aesthetics. A person can be fit, strong and healthy at every size. Body love and self-acceptance are key for psychological change. We try to communicate and embody that. We want women to come to our gym for health reasons.

We are addressing the need for a warm, comfortable and fun space with varied offers for women. In many gyms, women are only encouraged to take part in aerobic activities. While sports like kickboxing are becoming more popular with women, other spaces still have issues regarding unwanted attention from incessant patrons, usually male.

Through our personal safety curricula, we are creating programmes needed for women. Society teaches them all the relevant home and hearth skills, but neglects showing them how they can defend themselves in case of an attack. Just walking on the street, a woman will be harassed by multiple men and yet we, as a people, haven’t even considered giving women psychological and physiological tools to deal with such instances. We are trying to change that. I have given a TED talk titled Women and Spaces that expounds on this.

Are your programmes designed differently to those in a unisex gym?

We have a different style of delivery, and our programmes are designed from insights into how other gyms work. One example is our scheduling of classes. We create classes to suit our clients and are flexible. We, for example, just introduced a babyrobics class to cater to a large group of women who felt ready to enjoy our programmes, but didn’t want to leave their babies behind. We also have a network of trainers who are part of our personal training programmes for women who don’t want to visit a gym.

What are your expansion plans?

We intend to expand the gym component of FitcliqueAfrica around Uganda, then look to the rest of Africa. For the personal safety curricula, we intend to have personal safety orientation for women in universities all over sub-Saharan Africa within the next 10 years.

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