8th March marked International Women’s Day (IWD) and was a chance to reflect on and celebrate the achievements and progress of women and girls worldwide and support the push for gender equality. The theme of IWD 2024 was ‘Inspire Inclusion,’ highlighting the need to spread awareness of women’s issues and motivate others to put inclusivity at the forefront of everything they do.

Judo is a sport for everyone but, at club level, women’s participation often lags far behind that of men. In Scotland, for example, female participation rates in sport have been very low historically and it is common for girls to drop out of sport during their teenage years. JudoScotland, the country's governing body, recognised this problem early on and took steps to try to reverse the trend. Enter ‘Judo Girls Rock!’

Edinburgh University Judo Club has been hosting regular female-only sessions under the Judo Girls Rock banner since 2019.

JudoScotland explained, “The Judo Girls Rock programme was initially launched nearly 10 years ago and was developed as a pilot scheme set up with support from some fantastic local partners. The programme then rolled out across various parts of the country, aiming to increase participation rates of girls in judo. Judo Girls Rock was about removing the barriers involved with participation and creating welcoming environments in clubs through the development of girls-only sessions that included time on the mat and workshops off the mat encouraging a healthy lifestyle. At the time, it was hugely successful in driving female membership and is a programme that is still a part of the judo landscape in Scotland, something we are keen to continue to grow and tap into.”

Edinburgh University Judo Club is just one of many clubs across Scotland that have engaged heavily with the programme, running regular beginner-friendly sessions for women and girls under the Judo Girls Rock banner, led by female coaches. The sessions are designed to introduce the sport to newcomers but also bring together and celebrate the club’s existing female members.

On the eve of International Women’s Day 2024, the club held another successful session which saw 11 women try the sport for the first time, alongside just as many of the club’s current members. The session was led by Xavière Hermant, a former Scottish champion and 2nd dan, and Kirsty Marsh, also a 2nd dan and a Scottish representative at the 2022 Commonwealth Games. We asked some of the participants to share their thoughts on the significance of Judo Girls Rock, what makes judo a great sport for women and what more can be done to increase women’s participation of women in judo.

For the club’s president, Hannah Wilson, a 1st Dan who has practised judo for 15 years, the female-only sessions are of vital importance. “As well as celebrating the women we already have at the club, it’s a really good opportunity to promote the sport and get more women involved. At the session today we had an equal number of new people as we did existing members and those new people may never have tried it at all otherwise.”

Inclusivity played a major role in Jess Chen sticking with judo; she started training at the club a month ago. “The way that everyone accepted me immediately made judo really enjoyable. I didn’t feel like I had to prove myself and everyone continues to be very accommodating for me as a beginner.” Regarding the women’s only sessions, she continues, “I’ve never seen so many girls turn up to a martials arts class before today, so having more sessions like this would be a step in the right direction.”

Having strong female role models to look up to is a key factor in encouraging many women to stay in the sport. “Girls, when they’re younger, tend to be told that judo and other fighting sports aren’t for them,” says Elsa, who started judo at her local club in Paris. “One of my biggest idols is Romane Dicko. I watch what she’s doing and think, if she’s a woman and she can do it, then so can I.” Hannah adds, “At my old club there was always one girl who was a bit older and always a couple of grades ahead of me, who always looked after me and was like a big sister. That was really important to me.”

The participants of a female-only "Judo Girls Rock" session at Edinburgh University Judo Club on 7th March 2024. 11 women tried the sport for the first time.

The presence of several female coaches at the session was a big positive for Thea Moreno, for whom this was her first judo session. “If you don’t see anyone at the top who looks like you, then you might not think you can do it. Seeing a lot of women as instructors is really encouraging.” For her, even the phrase ‘Judo Girls Rock’ is an important affirmation. “I’ve done Japanese jiu-jitsu for several years,” she explains, “and we’ve run self-defence classes for women in the past but the framing is completely different. For us we were saying ‘you are at a disadvantage so you should come,’ but with Judo Girls Rock it’s ‘judo is cool and you should be cool too,’ which is really positive.”

For Alex Crane, who is six months into her judo journey, advertising the many benefits of judo is essential to get more women into the sport. “We need to communicate about judo more to women and say ‘this is a sport you can do, this is a sport that women do, so don’t be intimidated by it.’ Sport is good for everyone and it’s really good for things like confidence and control; I know what my body can do and I have confidence in that. For women particularly, that can be a really huge thing and judo can help with that.”

All of the women highlighted the sense of community and friendship that judo and martial arts has given them as one of the best things the sport has to offer. “The best thing about judo is the friends you make,” says Emma Wilkes, the club women’s captain, “Hannah and I have been close friends for 10 years, all thanks to judo.” Emma also feels that university clubs, where socialising is an important part of club culture, are ideally placed to help girls return to the sport as adults. “A lot of girls drop out of judo in their teen years as they’re worried about their body image. At university you try to find a group of people you enjoy being around and if the atmosphere at the university club is good, it’s very easy to get back into it.”

Judo Girls Rock session run by Focus Judo on 6th March 2024. The club has been running girls-only sessions since 2017

The Judo Girls Rock programme has helped make judo more accessible to not only a whole new generation of young girls but also to many women who might otherwise never have experienced all that our sport has to offer them. JudoScotland is committed to building upon that success. They said, “Moving forward, we remain passionate about growing participation rates of women and girls in judo and we are also acutely aware of the importance and value of increasing the number of female coaches in Scotland. This forms a vital part of our plans to increase the variety of opportunities for, and expand the presence of, women and girls as they begin and continue their judo journeys.”

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