When restrictive gender roles get in the way of her dream, this Roma boxer punches back
16-year-old Stela from Moldova defies pressures to drop out of school and marry young.
As a kid, Stela would tag along with her brothers to their boxing club and watch in awe as they practised. She fell in love with the sport and decided she “didn’t want to just look.” Stela wanted to be a boxer too.
When she told her parents about her dream, they said that “boxing is not for girls.” Stela disagreed and began training with her brothers’ coach.
When her parents found out, they forbid her from going back. But Stela’s coach stood by her side and asked her parents to let her keep boxing. To Stela’s surprise, her parents agreed.
After winning several medals at regional competitions in Moldova, 16-year-old Stela now dreams of becoming a world champion boxer and joining the ranks of female Olympians.
“My goal is to be a big name in sports,” she says. “When I achieve results [as a boxer], people will never say again that girls cannot do what boys can do.”
Stela’s goals are unusual for a girl in the Romani community she belongs to. In Roma tradition, girls are expected to marry early. At Stela’s age, most Roma girls are out of school and raising children. Only 14% of secondary school-age girls of Roma origin are currently in school in Moldova. Many of Stela’s friends married by the age of 13 and now “they do not have studies, do not have jobs, they have nothing.”
Stela on the other hand, has “a dream to pursue.” She wants to stay in school, continue training and build towards a career. “Girls must have a profession, a purpose to become someone,” she says.
“When I was younger, even when the weather was bad and my mom wanted me to stay home, I told her I had to go to school to study. I was the best student.”
Currently, Stela attends a vocational baking school and faces her own set of challenges. Even though Stela gets to learn English, Romanian and other subjects along with baking, a vocational school isn’t her first choice. However, it is the only school close to her hometown. Between her trainings, classes, homework and house chores, Stela’s schedule is packed. She doesn’t have the time to travel to attend a regular high school. Even now, it’s hard for Stela to juggle all her responsibilities, but she keeps working hard.
“I want my parents to be proud of me and other girls to follow my example.”
Stela says her family and community are now proud of her achievements and gained respect her for over the years. But they still don’t send girls to train.
“At first there were four or five girls and now it’s just me,” Stela says about her boxing club, where she is the only girl out of 18 boxers.
Stela worries about her ability to compete internationally. With the lack of girl boxers in Moldova, there are few tournaments for her to participate in.
But Stela does not lose hope and instead plans on winning all her competitions this year to attract prospective female boxers. She says she wants to show her community “what a girl can do.” And as far as Stela is concerned, girls can do anything they want to, “overcome any barriers and reach all their goals.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bhumika Regmi is social media associate at Malala Fund. She loves dogs and plans on naming her future puppy Mochi, after the Japanese treat.