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Defending for a Cause

Pooja Nagpal teaches self-defense to girls in India and the United States.

As a young child, Pooja Nagpal found inspiration in old Indian mythological stories. “The goddesses were my superheroes,” she says. “Powerful women who had a unique, symbolic fighting spirit, and helped and protected the vulnerable.” These fierce, strong women warriors fueled Nagpal’s passion for tae kwon do, in which she became a second-degree black belt by the age of 16. Now, she is using her martial arts skills to inspire other girls, both in India and the United States. Her nonprofit organization, For a Change, Defend, aims to eliminate gender-based violence and empower young women. Nagpal is also working on a safety app for college students.

After learning about cases of assault, harassment and domestic abuse targeted toward women across the world, Nagpal felt that her training in tae kwon do and street fighting could help make a difference. She cites the 2012 gang rape and murder of a girl in New Delhi as a seminal moment in her decision to join the cause for women’s safety. The horrific incident had sparked nationwide protests and demand for better laws against gender-based violence.

In August 2013, Nagpal visited Arya Public High School Subath in the village of Subathu in Himachal Pradesh and taught self-defense and mental empowerment techniques to 40 girls. “I wanted to teach them to have a fighting spirit, and the determination to prevail,” says Nagpal. “So many girls are defeated before they learn to dream.”

The students quickly learned self-defense techniques, ranging from hand and foot moves to pressure points, for defending themselves from attackers and escaping dangerous situations.

Nagpal spent a month in India, devoting over 100 hours to develop a self-defense curriculum, training her new students, and leaving behind a toolbox to instruct future pupils. Her two-part curriculum not only focused on improving the girls’ physical abilities, but also sharpened their mental acuity through discussions and activities centered on leadership, community service, confidence building and education. She led daily motivational discussions with her students on how to become a leader by using their self-confidence and physical strength.

The overwhelmingly positive feedback she received about the improvement in her students in India, encouraged Nagpal to further her work in her hometown of Manhattan Beach, California. For a Change, Defend has  teamed up with the California-based New Star Family Justice Center to provide self-defense and mental empowerment training to teen students in the South Bay region of Los Angeles County.

Nagpal also organized a self-defense workshop at the Anne Douglas Center, a shelter and rehabilitation facility for women in Los Angeles, with the help of the city’s police department and a few former Federal Bureau of Investigation personnel.

In the summer of 2015, Nagpal returned to India, traveling to New Delhi to spread the message of her organization to government schools, women’s colleges, institutes for visually-impaired girls, villages and other areas.

Along with self-defense, she continues to emphasize the importance of mental empowerment and confidence gained through physical strength. While her initial trip to India impacted a small group of 40 girls, Nagpal estimates that over 500 students became involved with her organization during her 2015 visit.

That same year, she was honored by the Girl Scouts of the USA as one of the 10 National Young Women of Distinction. The 10 were chosen for this honor to acknowledge their demonstrations of extraordinary leadership and impact on local or national issues. Nagpal also won a 2016 Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, which celebrates inspiring, public-spirited young people from diverse backgrounds all across North America.

Nagpal hopes to continue to lead an international movement where physical defense and mental empowerment go hand-in-hand to foster gender equality. She believes one day, women will walk the streets without any fear. With her continued hard work, the fight grows stronger every day.


Jason Chiang is a freelance writer based in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.