Pooja Nagpal, a 19-year-old US-based student, has received the 2016 Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes not because of her skills as a second-degree black belt Taekwondo performer but for taking martial arts training to a remote mountain village of India and teaching young girls the science and art of self-defence.
Pooja started her own Korean martial arts Taekwondo at the age of 12 and after three years she started training other girls. She had read about girls facing sexual harassment and domestic violence across the world, particularly in third-world countries like India, and decided to help them out by arming them with the fighting spirit.
Pooja, along with her sister Meera, traveled to mountain village of Himachal Pradesh Subathu for her Girl Scout Gold Award project. The Gold Award is the highest award in Girl Scouts of the USA and only 5.4% of eligible Girl Scouts achieve this feat. The program requires a girl to spend at least 80 hours of independent planning and execution of a project that has an impact on the society.
Both the sisters engaged themselves in teaching self-defence and English language to the underprivileged girls and women in this remote village. Pooja also educated them about women empowerment through a daily discussion session.
Pooja’s students were highly inspired by her conversations on women empowerment and leadership and decided to go out and teach self-defence to four schools around them.
Pooja returned to India this summer and taught over 600 women and girls self-defence. She also went to several remote areas of Himachal Pradesh, and orphanages in Delhi and Chandigarh to teach rural women and girls.
After completing her Gold Award winning project, Pooja went on to launch an NGO that promotes martial arts-based self defence in schools. She also created a two-part curriculum seeking to empower girls and young women, mentally and physically. Pooja is also partnering with several domestic violence shelters, worked with the Los Angeles Police Department and with several homeless shelters for women. She is currently engaged in producing a safety app for women to assist women suffering from sexual assaults in colleges.
Pooja was teaching at a school for the visually impaired in Dhaneli village, Chandigarh where the girls had once stopped going to school because of constant harassment by local men. They resumed schooling after increased police protection in the area. Pooja decided to visit Dhaneli to give the girls some handy self-defence training that will enable them to take on their assailants themselves.
Pooja has trained more than 1,000 disadvantaged women in India and Los Angeles in self-defence in the past three years.
Pooja is majoring in electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley and currently working toward a third-degree black belt. Last year, she had given a TEDx Talk in Manhattan Beach and was one among 10 National Young Women of Distinction recognized by the Girl Scouts. Pooja strongly supports high school volunteer work and equality for boys and girls.