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Empowerment Self-Defense

NWMAF-certified instructors are skilled in both physical and verbal self-defense skills, knowledgeable about violence against women, have strong backgrounds in martial arts, and support empowerment as a goal of women’s self-defense.

The NWMAF is a leader in empowerment-based self-defense technology.  We offer professional development and credentials to self-defense instructors. From cutting-edge research to best practices in classroom management, from non-profit service to running an effective business, we can help instructors maximize what they deliver to their students.

What is Empowerment Self-Defense?

Empowerment Self-Defense (ESD) teaches practical skillsLink to footnote to those targeted for gender-based violence—primarily women, LGBTQIA+ people, and non-binary people. These skills help people avoid, interrupt, respond to, and heal from interpersonal violence.

We teach those skills in the context of rape culture, addressing the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and sociocultural components of advocating for and protecting yourself and others.

ESD is grounded in an understanding of social inequality and social justice, and it addresses the whole spectrum of gender-based violence, from harassment to attack, from microaggressions to trafficking.

In short, ESD is anything we think or say or do that helps us feel safe, strong, and respected.

These are some of the core elements of an ESD program.

  • We know that trauma survivors are in every room, and we teach with awareness of how trauma affects people.
  • We reject victim-blaming and honor anything anyone has done or is doing to survive.
  • We focus a lot on harassment, abuse, and assault by people we know, as that’s most common.
  • We use and model consent throughout the class, and every activity in an ESD classroom is optional.
  • We don’t use fear tactics, and we focus on student’s strengths rather than weaknesses and build on them.
  • We practice assertive communication skills that can be used to interrupt all levels of violations and don’t just teach physical self-defense.
  • We teach a toolbox of skills—physical, verbal, emotional—against a range of assaults ranging from irritating to life-threatening.
  • Our classes are accessible and include physical techniques that are simple, quick to learn, and easy to remember, and that people of different ages, sizes, and abilities can do.
  • We know that whatever someone decides to do in each situation, whatever action they do or don’t take, they aren’t at fault. The responsibility lies 100% with the aggressor.
  • We don’t tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t do. We recognize that there are many ways to defend oneself, and we respect everyone’s decision to get through or survive the best way they can.

It Works

The most profound testimony about the transformative power of ESD training is what our students say. They tell us how life-changing ESD training has been for them: they are more able to speak up for themselves, less likely to blame themselves for harassment, abuse, and assault; are more confident and less fearful; know themselves better, trust themselves more, have healthier relationships, and are more able to create the lives they want.

Here’s what the research says.


  1. Empowerment Self-Defense Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), Jocelyn A. Hollander, accessed December 7, 2022.

How to choose a self-defense class

In a good empowerment self-defense program, students learn awareness, assertiveness, and verbal and physical skills. These skills can help defenders prevent, escape, resist, and survive assault, abuse, or harassment. 

In choosing a class, look for a program or an instructor who:

  • Knows the facts about abuse and assault aimed at women, and tailors classes to this reality. For example, a good class will address situations involving acquaintances and romantic partners as well as attacks by strangers.
  • Knows the realities of women’s lives and is able to work with each student where they are. For example, a good teacher adapts verbal and physical techniques to each student’s strengths and challenges; they will not have a “one-size-fits-all” program.
  • Respects people’s decisions on how to handle dangerous or threatening situations and does not blame or judge survivors.
  • Offers techniques, knowledge, and strategies to help students make their own decisions about how to handle situations instead of telling students what they should or should not do.
  • Takes an empowering approach not only to the practice of self-defense but also to teaching the program. For example, students should be able to determine their own levels of participation in the class, and no one should feel pressured into doing specific exercises.

(Thanks to the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault for some of this material.)

NWMAF Certified Self-Defense Instructors are available in the US and internationally. Contact them directly for more information on classes and workshops in your area. If your area is not listed here, contact your local rape crisis or sexual assault center, or your local YWCA, for referrals.

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