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This Senegalese Woman Is Using Wrestling To Help Girls Fight For Change

Refinery29 has partnered with Allison Rapson and Kassidy Brown, founders of the media company We Are the XX, for a documentary series exploring the lives of women around the world. "A Woman's Place" features the stories of female activists working for real change in their communities.

In Senegal, wrestling is more than just a sport. Laamb, the style of wrestling practiced there for centuries, has long been a major cultural rite of passage. In recent years, its popularity has boomed. Matches attract tens of thousands of fans — making wrestling even more popular than soccer in Senegal. But women have long been left on the sidelines. Now, Isabelle Sambou and other female stars of the sport are trying to open the ring — and the opportunities that come with it — to more women.

Sambou, the national champion and 2012 Olympian is part of a push to get more women involved in the sport, in Senegal and beyond. Major sponsors mean that champions become national celebrities and can win huge payouts in a country where almost half the population lives below the poverty line, outlets such as The New York Times have reported. Some consider wrestling Senegal's national support.

"Female wrestling is known but not very well-known. But we are going to change that," Sambou said. "We will help advance it, and the little girls behind me will be world champions and Olympic champions. They’ll be more than us, and that feels good."

Sambou says wrestling opened major doors in her own life. "My life has changed a lot. I was just a maid and a nanny when I stopped to wrestle," she said. "I finally found something I wanted, and it changed my life."
She wants to use her fame to encourage young girls in Senegal to follow her trailblazing path and reach their potential. Some even hope increasing female participation in a sport so ingrained in Senegalese culture could help address larger issues of gender equality, including access to education, economic opportunities and child marriage.

"If we want to be taken seriously, we need to be active, we need to get involved and we need to stand for our own rights," Aminatou Sar of Amnesty International said. "No one will do it on our behalf. I would say that the Senegalese women are brave, and they are fighters."