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KO'd in Kabul

The Afghan Women's Boxing Club - the only such organisation in the country - boasts 20 members, mostly girls in their late teens, who share a passion for a sport that even in less conservative countries might be deemed inappropriate for young women.

In Afghanistan, however, the very existence of the club is testament to the determination of its members to strive against the enduring lack of freedom for women to participate in society on all levels.

These 20 girls and women are the de facto national team due to the lack of other women's teams. Money to promote national sports men and women is in short supply in a country battling with multiple insurgencies, regular terrorist strikes and widespread poverty. Not lacking in ambition and pure determination, the team has now set its sights on the Olympic Games in London in 2012 and 21-year old Shahla Sekandari, who briefly rose to fame by bringing home a bronze medal from the Asian Indoor Games in Vietnam in 2009, looks like the country's best hope for a medal in London.

The severe restrictions on women's freedoms in Afghanistan are manifold and all-pervasive - a mixture of ancient tribal customs, strict forms of Islam and a male-dominated society that has seen almost constant war since the 1970s. Shahla and her fellow boxers are all too aware of this and consequently take their sport particularly seriously.

They have to make do with a total dearth of resources - each gets GBP 0.75 per training session - and in many cases, strong opposition from their families who would rather see them integrate inconspicuously in society. Shahla's brother initially opposed her, stating that "I think women should be allowed to work, but within Islamic boundaries.", an attitude that could be described as liberal in a country where only a tiny number of women can be found in work outside the capital.

For Shahla, as for the other girls, boxing is a hugely liberating activity that builds their confidence and gives them a way out of the drudgery and violence of daily life. "In Afghanistan there is so much violence and prejudice towards women," she says "Because of that, when I come here and box, I feel freedom. Here we are all girls and we talk with each other and practise. Here is freedom for me and for every girl."

For now, Shahla is the only female candidate chosen for London 2012, though the country's Olympic Committee is trying to recruit emigrees who may be able to bolster numbers and repeat the groundbreaking success of Rohullah Nikpai, a taekwondo fighter who won bronze in Beijing in 2008.

17-year old Sadaf, another of the Olympic hopefulls who is trying to get on the squad, puts it simply: "If I won a gold or bronze medal, it wouldn't just be for me, but for my country, to show that Afghan women can enter a world competition."

Abbie was commissioned by Oxfam to photograph the boxers in Kabul. To support their cause, go to
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