Girls To Watch: Pooja Nagpal

She is smart, confident and fiery with a tinge of innocence attached. When I spoke to her, I couldn’t help but admire her smiling face, cheerful attitude and that sparkle in her eyes that testified “CHANGE”. She is the founder of a non-profit For a Change, Defend and a speaker at United Nations Commission on Status of Women.

Inspiring beyond words Pooja Nagpal, an 18 year old girl based out of California, US, who travels across the interiors of India to teach martial arts. She has trained 800 rural women and girls so far.

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Tell us something about your family? How did it all start?

I always felt a huge connect since, both my parents are Indian and a lot of my family is from there. In 2013, it was for my ‘Gold Award for Girls Scouts’ that I went to teach self-defense in a village in Himachal Pradesh with my sister. She used to teach English. After I saw a lot of girls progress, in fact, some of them actually made it to the top ranking that sort of motivated me to draw a correlation between mental strength and physical strength. In 2014, I created ‘For a Change, Defend’ which is a non-profit and since then, I have gone to various places and created a bigger network. It’s been a great experience!

You have been awarded with ‘2015, National Young Women of Distinction’ award, tell us something about it?

It’s actually same as Girls Scout. They select 10 young women who have done something in the world that has created a sustainable impact. In 2013, I taught about 40 girls and that was my Gold award project. It was sustainable because these girls continued to practice every single day. Soon after the number increased to 400, 500.

How did you come up with the idea of For a Change, Defend? Do you target certain geographies or is it for all?

In 2013, it was too early for me to target a specific set of girls. I started with people from more low income families and when I taught I tended to teach in more villages. Some of the private schools asked me to teach martial arts lessons, however, I wished to teach lower income girls especially in rural areas that tend to be those that need most help, since, in these areas, mostly cases go unreported.

In 2016, I taught blind girls and victims of sex trafficking with a thought process, “For a change this time, we are going to defend”.

It’s been very difficult to transfer my 12 years of Taekwondo knowledge to the students in a couple of weeks, hence, a lot of what I taught was practical self-defense techniques, realistic martial arts. I even gave them videos but most of the villages did not have the capacity to afford computers. So, it used to be instruction based, I used to identify a few girls (in the first few weeks) who had a natural knack for these moves. They stepped up saying they would continue to teach the other students after I left.

What is the mindset of these girls when you talk to them, how do you attack their apprehensions? How do you focus on mental alertness?

A lot of the times people are in mental shock when anything happens to them, I tell them to imagine the situations where they would be most scared, fearful or helpless. The thing about self-defense is, it’s not just about remembering the moves, it’s about having a confidence that you can punch somebody on face. It’s very mental, it not just physical. It’s all about empowerment and you don’t have to know these fancy steps for that.

You are also creating a ‘women safety app’. Tell us something about it?

Yes, I am doing this project and right now it’s in a very initial phase. It’s a wrist band with a signaling power and if anywhere you are in trouble it sends a signal to the nearby police station. We want to first implement it in college because sexual assault is a huge issue there and then we would travel to different countries.

One last message you wish to give away to our readers.

I would love to see not only people getting involved with these issues, but also think about social impact in every aspect of their lives. I genuinely believe that we need to better the culture of volunteering, social work, and impact. Especially, with issues involving women, our society needs more activists, not just those who talk about it. End of the day, it is the action we take that creates change, not only words.

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