Empowerment Comes With Teaching Self-Defense to Oppose Inequality

We all have the power to enact small and big changes in our communities. Self-defense can be a stepping stone for a larger conversation for areas in the world where violence occurs but never gets reported.

Karina Nguyen
7 min readApr 4, 2019


Illustration by Rachel He

Today young women live in the world of incredible opportunities and possibilities, but also the world of tremendous challenges and serious risks, especially in developing countries as India.

Four years before the #MeToo movement began, Pooja Nagpal founded her own non-profit with the mission to mentally and physically empower generations of girls to lead lives free of violence. Her self-defense initiative became a part of the dialogue that goes beyond a hashtag. Today, she is an activism supporter, a 3rd-year junior at UC Berkeley, and a project developer in Blueprint.

Pooja created a special self-defense curriculum for rural villages of India and crime-ridden/violent areas of Los Angeles as a response to a 2012 Delhi gang rape incident and the increased rate of girls quitting school in Bareilly due to harassment.

She continues coming back to Northern India — from Himachal Pradesh to Bareilly, from villages of Delhi to Chandigarh. During the winter break, while some of us volunteered at the US-Mexico Border, Pooja took a flight to Calcutta, West Bengal to teach self-defense techniques to local policewomen.

Her For a Change, Defend non-profit is impacting thousands of young girls and women every year. Since 2013 she has been teaching over 1,000 girls and women. For her, self-defense is the way to enact change and secure the future of many lives.

Source: CBS News Interview, Photo editor: Karina N.

Where did you learn martial arts and what do you teach girls?

I started Taekwondo when I was a kid. But I picked up self-defense along the way while working with people and learning other forms of martial arts like boxing/Muay Thai, or those who were trained in practical street fighting and defense.

I teach girls defense techniques ranging from various hand and foot techniques to pressure points. Self-defense often times is about the mindset: we talk about how to become a leader, empower oneself, and use the physical training and strength to fuel mental empowerment.

Does your teaching style change when you train in India and America?

I think when anyone has to live their life in fear, whether a guy or a girl, it’s an impediment to education and empowerment. The disparity in confidence often times leads me to teach differently in India. Although the basics of techniques are the same, the learning style is vastly apart because these are two different worlds.

There’ve been always diverse groups of women/girls who I taught: blind girls at the Blind School for Girls, who are surprisingly the fastest learners, 40–50 year old rural mothers, who speak only Spanish, and many others, with who I were not able to communicate due to different dialects.

At the end of the day self-defense is just a physical movement and inclusive practice that people can learn no matter where they are, who they are, or where they come from.

Source: Los Angeles Times

One of the main factors that gender inequality stems from is culture. Millions of girls in India suffer from all kinds of discrimination. In your opinion, what is vital to tell them today?

Even if they don’t end up using self-defense techniques, I really hope that a girl who has realized her worth doesn’t wait to be told who she should marry. I hope that she will follow her own aspirations and independence to live her life freely.

There’s a ton of issues here, especially at college campuses, where many cases of assault aren’t reported due to stigmatized culture and the lack of empathy from legal enforcement. It can be worse in places like rural India, where a lot of 15–16 year old girls I taught are told to marry much older men. It definitely prevents young girls from pursuing higher education. These conservative practices and the denial of the right to education are the reasons why girls and women do not report cases since their lives are built around a patriarchal system and their husbands.

From teaching many girls of different ages in areas like the villages in India, as well as developing nations such as Africa, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, I realized that there’s a critical age (around 14–18), when a young girl can get an opportunity to change her life. She can break away from the rules and oppression that violence feeds upon. If she is able to go from villages to the cities and pursue more vocational careers, she can become more independent, and families would put less pressure on her about marriage.

Designed by Karina N. Sources: UN India, UNDP, The Wire, The Guardian
Designed by Karina N. Sources: UN Women, National Domestic Violence Stat

Your hard work has definitely led to phenomenal results. How do you envision the future of your non-profit as a global movement?

I have been thinking of creating an app that would showcase instructional videos as well as urgent alerts to connect with local police in cases of harassment. But after years of teaching, I realized that the fundamental problem is that most cases go unreported. It eventually allows attackers to be less afraid of getting caught since, first of all, many women/girls are encouraged not to report, and secondly, the law enforcement doesn’t do enough to prosecute even with many cases that happen in colleges.

One day I hope to spend a lot of time researching and implementing ways to break such unfair system in all those places. I do think that learning English and acquiring competitive skills are they ways that lead to more professional opportunities for independence. I think this kind of a long term envision takes time and collective effort.

I hope that more and more people, especially in tech where they often shelter themselves from the rest of the world, not only solve such issues from distance, but do more ground work at these places. Talking about it is definitely not enough.

Source: For a Change, Defend

What’s the most fundamental principle of your self-defense curriculum?

I would say confidence, quick reactions, and understanding the weakest parts of the body. This takes time and practice to get techniques to a second nature. It has been also proven many times that an acquired physical strength has the power for individuals to become mentally stronger and feel less fear in contexts of oppression.

Although awareness for this issue is needed, self-defense is not only a method for active protection, but also a stepping stone for a larger conversation for those areas in the world, where violence occurs but never gets reported.

You must have learned so much from the girls and the teaching process itself. Can you share something with us?

It is honestly really inspiring to see the transformation in the girls, especially when many of them enter so fragile and quiet due to being told they must be submissive, and suddenly become more and more outspoken and passionate at the end of the workshops. They are so motivated to learn the techniques, and honestly, they are becoming so strong.

It is interesting to see how their physical strength translates into mental strength. I found that they became much more confident about what they wish to accomplish in the future and what they hope other girls (their peers) can also achieve. It is so empowering to see the girls taking a stand to break down cultural barriers of patriarchy and inequality.

It’s definitely taught me more about the issue as well as steps that should be taken next to change the culture. I also know there’s a long way to go and it should start at home with teaching sons to respect girls and giving daughters a freedom of choice.

Illustration by Karina N.

All kinds of harassment affects mental health of young girls from all backgrounds, races, classes, and sexualities, though it can have a particularly difficult impact on women of color and members of the LGBTQ community.

Not only is it necessary to acknowledge the prevalence of discrimination and abuse, but action is required to change the culture and ensure security and safety for everyone. The action items are just your starting point — you can do one of them, none, or all of them. You have a community to make an impact for a better environment.

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Karina Nguyen

applied artist & researcher | prev. @nytimes, @dropbox, @square