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Essentials of Self-defence for Women

What is self defence

Self-defence is not just a skill-set. It starts first and foremost with the belief that you are worth defending.

It's easy to think that self-defence is all about punching and kicking and similar physical skills, but there's a lot more that is a part of effective self-defence.

The will and internal permission to stand up for ourselves underlies our ability to act. Next comes paying attention to our senses and our intuition, which gives us information that we need to be able to act.

Violence, and self-defence, happens on a timeline. The earlier we are able to respond, the more options we have, which can involve: not being there, leaving, or finding someone who can help, including through safety in numbers and by being a witness.

Self-defence tips

Just to make it clear, we shouldn’t have to worry about these things, and if someone is attacked it is not their fault. Never. That responsibility always lies with the attacker. But unfortunately, we can’t control what others do. However, we can give ourselves an advantage by preparing ourselves to be better able to deal with violent confrontations.


  • "A woman can't defend herself against a male attacker"

Not true. There is a lot that women can do, and have done with great effect.

  • "Size doesn't matter"

Unfortunately, not true, and this has to inform our approach to self-defence. The goal is to get to safety. Fighting may be a part of doing that, but the goal is to break away, not to physically defeat a bigger and stronger opponent. This changes the equation massively.

Key elements of self-defence

  • Situational awareness
  • Mindset
  • Avoidance and evasion
  • Verbal de-escalation and Boundary setting
  • Physical self defence
  • Aftermath.


  • being clear on where you are
  • being clear on who is around you
  • are the people around you behaving as you would expect?

If they are not then you need to be much more alert - alertness is going to be on a scale - you may carry on with what you're doing, but paying more attention to them, or you may decide to stop or change what you're doing.


Giving ourselves permission to survive and to thrive, and developing our ability for controlled aggression and determination.

This goes back to the idea that you are worth defending. If someone has decided to attack you, they have chosen the consequences that come with that. You have a right to defend yourself.

In Krav Maga training, we practice to develop our ability for controlled aggression in order to turn the tables on an attacker and use the element of surprise to the fullest.

An advantage of the myth that women can't defend themselves against male attackers, is that bad guys don't expect us to fight back.


  • making choices to change what we are doing, based on our situational awareness.
  • Not being there when bad things happen, or if you are, getting away.

De-escalation and Boundary setting:


I hear you. Let's talk about this.

Defusing a situation that could potentially become violent, through communication, body language, positioning, active listening and empathizing with the "opponent", or posturing.

Boundary setting

That's close enough, pal

For self-defence, we use verbal boundary setting as a way of getting more information about what we are dealing with. Is this someone who respects you and/or will follow normal social and legal rules?

Boundary setting does not work well on people who don't care about your boundaries. But it can show them that we are not going to be an easy target, and give us an earlier warning to whether the person we are dealing with is just socially awkward or oblivious, a low level creep, or something more sinister.

We look at the person's reactions to us setting a boundary. Anything other than respecting the boundary, is a red flag, that tells us to raise our level of readiness.

Be prepared for a consequence to setting boundaries. Often, this will be someone calling you unflattering names and walking off grumbling. It doesn't feel good perhaps, but they are leaving. It's a win, take it.

There are a number of things that can make boundary setting hard for people, including internalised norms, past experiences, and emotional manipulation by the aggressor.

Bad guys are good at manipulating you into an emotional space where it’s harder to set and enforce your boundaries, and harder to fight back. Emotional manipulation can be very effective. We’ve all fallen prey to manipulation in some form in our lives. Knowing what to look for takes away some of its power.

This list of Pre-incident indicators are important red-flag behaviours to look out for.

Physical self-defence

  • Distance management

Create distance and barriers, to buy time and assess the situation, and so that the attacker can no longer continue, or you can diffuse the situation.

  • Be loud, draw witnesses

  • Act decisively, fight hard

  • Stay on your feet, or get up as soon as you can

  • Hard bones to vulnerable points

  • The goal is to get to safety

The bigger a problem you are, the higher the risk for them that they’re going to get injured or caught, and they are more likely to look for an easier target.


  • Being prepared for what to expect.
  • Managing and reducing negative impact of a self-defence situation afterwards.
  • Knowing where to look for resources, help and support.

Police Scotland, April 2021

The above is a great example of a self-defence win of the highest order. Nothing happened. That's the best outcome.

Internal permission to protect ourselves

Many of us have a lot of ingrained learning, socialization that tells us that using violence is always bad, which can stop us from having access to physical force as a tool for defending ourselves, or someone we care about.

Speaking generally, girls and women, still, tend to have this programmed more strongly, learning to be polite, helpful, caring, and accommodating, not being rude or loud.

Many of these are generally good rules to live by, and something that allows us to live in an overall very peaceful society. But these are not the rules that apply when someone tries to harm us. We need to switch to a different set of behaviours.

This is stated in the law on self-defence, which says that a person can use force, in a way that is otherwise illegal, when it is for the purpose of defending themselves or another from immediate harm.

The use of force must be reasonable in the circumstances, and proportionate to the threat that they are facing.

Some have a learned belief that physical force is not a tool that is available to them. If we don’t believe it will work, our body is less likely to allow us to go for that option under duress. Overcoming this is part of our training - learning what we are capable of - as well as putting more tools in our self-defence tool-box.

It’s better to know what you are willing and not willing to do before you are in the middle of it.

There are some people who find it difficult to think about using physical force against another human being to defend themselves, even if that person is trying to do them serious harm. If that’s the case for you, think about what you would be willing to do to protect someone else, if someone was hurting the person you care most about in the world. Some people find that they come up with a very different answer. Also consider that someone else would do the same for you. You are allowed to do that for yourself.

You are worth defending.

Resources and further study

  • Situational awareness: https://kravmagaelite.co.uk/what-is-situational-awareness/

  • Developing boundaries: https://vimeo.com/518425427

  • Enforcing boundaries: https://vimeo.com/518425427

  • Pre-incident indicators: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gift_of_Fear#PINS_(Pre-Incident_Indicators)

  • Aftermath Resources to support you in the aftermath of a violent or abusive situation.

  • Rory Miller: Meditations on Violence and Facing Violence

  • Gavin DeBecker, The Gift of Fear

  • https://studyofviolence.com/

  • Anna Valdiserri, Creepology: Self-Defence for your Social Life

  • Eyal Yanilov and Ole Boe: Combat Mindset and Fighting Stress

Krav maga courses for beginners: https://rencounter.co.uk/courses