“When anyone has to live their life in fear, whether a girl or guy, it’s an impediment to education and empowerment.” – Pooja Nagpal
It’s one thing to be 15 years old with a second-degree black belt in Taekwondo. However, taking that same martial arts training to a remote mountain village in India, and teaching disadvantaged young girls how to defend themselves, is beyond impressive.
This is just one of the reasons why the now 19-year-old Pooja Nagpal was awarded the 2016 Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes.
A disciplined trainee of Taekwondo for 7 years, young Pooja had always wanted to put her passion for martial arts to good use. After reading about the large numbers of sexual assaults and domestic abuse targeted towards women all over the world, especially in India, she knew she had to help. Determined to aid young girls in finding their fighting spirit, she travelled (along with her sister, Meera) to the mountain village of Subathu in India for her Girl Scout Gold Award project.
The Gold Award is the highest award possible in Girl Scouts of the USA – only 5.4% of eligible Girl Scouts earn this award, which requires girls to spend a minimum of 80 hours on independently planning and executing a project that will have an impact on an issue.
At Subathu, the sisters taught self defense and the English language to the underprivileged young women in the remote village. She also made daily discussions about women empowerment with the girls a part of her project.
In a cascade effect, Pooja’s students were so inspired by her women empowerment and leadership discussions, that they decided to go out and teach self-defense to four other schools, starting a movement in the area.
While Pooja was delighted about achieving the Gold Award, it was helping these women that the most mattered for her.
“I am a very strong supporter of activism rather than advocacy: actually doing something about a cause rather than campaigning for it or talking about it. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to contribute my skills and passion for a great cause. I also figured if these girls learned self-defense, they might be able to protect themselves in situations of danger or violence,” Nagpal explained in her 2015 TED Talk.
The stories of the village girls, who told her that their dreams of becoming doctors and software engineers were stifled by daily fear of intimidation, stalking and threats on the way to school, stayed with Pooja even after she returned home. She also realised that harassment getting in the way of education was a problem not just in India but across the globe.
After completing her Gold Award winning project, Pooja went on to launch For a Change, Defend, a non-profit organization that promotes martial arts-based self-defense in schools. She also created a two-part curriculum that seeks to empower girls and young women, mentally and physically, through discussions and activities around leadership, community service, self-defense, confidence and education.
Since then, Pooja has also partnered with several domestic violence shelters, worked with the Los Angeles Police Department and with several homeless shelters for women. She is also currently creating a women’s safety app to assist with the college sexual assault epidemic.
Pooja’s NGO keeps the classes and self-defense workshops going in rural villages in India – she’s trained several people who can also teach classes in her absence. She herself continues to teach her students online through uploaded videos. The consistent awareness campaign Pooja runs through her Facebook page, For a Change, Defend has given her the opportunity to work with a Darfur refugee agency that is interested in implementing her curriculum of women empowerment and self-defense.
Pooja’s proud father, Pavan Nagpal, says,
“It is wonderful to see my daughter’s compassion making a difference in others’ lives. She has had this compassion and commitment from a very young age, a fact that makes me so happy.”
Pooja returned to India this past summer and taught over 600 women and girls self defense. She also went to several remote areas of Himachal Pradesh and orphanages in Delhi and Chandigarh to teach rural women and girls. She also taught self-defense to victims of sex trafficking in the poverty-stricken villages near Delhi, providing support and increasing protection for those who are most vulnerable.
Pooja was teaching at a school for the visually impaired in Chandigarh when she read about the 50 girls of the Dhaneli village in the Bareilly district who were briefly forced to discontinue studies due to continuous harassment by a group of youths on the way to school. The girls were able to resume their studies only after the police increased security deployment in the area.
The teenager decided to visit Dhaneli to give the girls some handy self-defence training so that in future, they would be able to take on their assailants themselves. On her visit, she trained 50 girls from Dhaneli and another 150 from neighbouring villages. Pooja says that though the girls were initially shy and scared, they opened up after a few rounds and quickly learned a few defense techniques. The girls have promised Pooja that they will keep practicing their technique and teach other girls in their neighbourhood too.
Pooja wishes that she had more time to teach them but she had to get back to USA as her college was about to start. She doesn’t know if she’ll be able to make it back every summer, but she’s determined to continue raising funds that will be used to send supplies to the Indian schoolgirls through her NGO.
Pooja is majoring in electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley. While she has less time for taekwondo than she did back home at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, Pooja is still working toward a third-degree black belt. In between managing her NGO and juggling her various college courses, Pooja likes to play the piano and listen to Taylor Swift.
Pooja has trained more than 1,000 disadvantaged women in India and Los Angeles in self-defense in the past three years.
She was recently named a 2016 winner of the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, the latest accolade for this inspiring youngster, who has given a TEDx Talk in Manhattan Beach and was one among 10 National Young Women of Distinction recognized by the Girl Scouts last year.
Pooja strongly supports high school volunteer work and equality for boys and girls. She has created a thirty-minute documentary concerning self defense in India that can viewed here.