Quito (AFP) - After surviving a harrowing rape attempt, Any Hurtado took up boxing -- and found herself surrounded by other Ecuadoran women using their fists for protection in a country torn by sexual violence.
Statistics paint a disturbing picture of the threats women face in the South American country: six out of every 10 have been the victims of gender-based aggression, and one girl in 10 suffers sexual abuse before the age of 18.
Hurtado, a 17-year-old nursing student, lived through her own horror story last year.
She was walking home when a group of men surrounded her and tried to rape her.
"They started grabbing me and trying to assault me," she told AFP.
"As I was struggling against them I thought I wasn't going to be able to get away. But I found the strength somewhere. I hit the one closest to me and managed to run away."
After the incident, Hurtado, who lives alone since her father emigrated to Spain four years ago, went to a gym in La Tola, a neighborhood in central Quito, and began learning to box.
There, she found a cohort of other women with stories similar to her own donning gloves and learning to use their fists to defend themselves.
One of them is Tania Lara, a 27-year-old domestic worker whose ex-husband used to beat her.
"Sometimes I wish I could go back in time. I think about what it would have been like then if I were the way I am now, a boxer. I'd have hit him hard," she said.
Another boxer, Maria Vega, a 30-year-old who sells potatoes at a market in the capital, said she trains with even more passion ever since she first put her boxing to use on the street.
"A guy grabbed my cell phone and I took off running after him. I beat him to the ground until he gave it back," she said with a grin.
The women put their gloves on, then got into the ring -- Vega with no protective headgear.
"There it is Tania! Harder, no fear, don't let her get you," yelled Segundo Chango, a local boxing coach who gives free lessons to the women.
Lara and Vega traded hooks and jabs for 15 minutes, moving around the ring gracefully as other boxers looked on.
"You think a woman can't last a week (boxing), but when you see them in there you realize they're tough," said Eric Bone, another of Chango's trainees.
- Next generation -
The La Tola gym began offering training for women boxers 10 years ago. Since then, a growing number have taken advantage of the classes -- about five a day currently, said Chango.
That reflects a natural response to the dangers women face in Ecuador, said Santiago Castellanos, a psychologist at the Latin American Social Sciences Faculty who specializes in gender studies.
"We live in a society where the public space is often safer for men than women. So women turn to self-defense... when society sees them as weak objects," he said.
These boxers reject the notion held by some that boxing may make them less feminine.
Amarilis Carbos, a 26-year-old office worker, took off her heels when she entered the gym, stored her purse in a locker and removed her make-up.
"My parents never let me box because obviously it was a sport for men," she said after changing into her workout clothes.
But now Carbos not only practices the sport, she even teaches it to her eight-year-old daughter.
"She has to learn to defend herself too," she said.