Two women in judo outfit practicing judo in front of group of friends.
Two women in judo outfit practicing judo in front of group of friends.

Photo © Arko Datto

Fighting for a brighter future

Judo and empowerment in India

In Madhya Pradesh a group of young women have been taught self-defence and judo, and it’s changing their future in incredible ways.

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Video Credit: Susannah Heath-Eves and Tom Jenkinson

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Sudama sat on a bench outside.

Before Sudama learned judo, her parents were scared to let her go out on her own, and on the days when her brother couldn’t take her to school, she would just stay at home.

Photo © Arko Datto

“Before, we were not considered important, but nowadays, if [for example]I refuse to go to judo practice, now my parents will make me go and learn judo, because they say that it will help me to shape my future,” says Sudama, age 17.

The training, run by Sightsavers and local DPO (disabled people’s organisation) Tarun Sanskar, started in 2014. The organisers asked young women in the community what they felt they needed to support their independence, and they asked to learn self-defence.

Madhya Pradesh, the state where the women live, has the highest number of reported incidents of sexual violence in all of India. Young women with disabilities are especially vulnerable to attacks. As a result of this, many women don’t feel comfortable leaving their homes.

“They started saying that when they move about in the villages, they are very scared and they have a lot of fear within them that they cannot walk around the villages,” says Jayashree Kumar, Programme Manager at Sightsavers in India. “There are a lot of boys that might take use of them – they say, ‘We are more vulnerable because we are blind.’”

Nikki walking in a field.

“I really enjoy judo … I can go out independently and if somebody tries to touch me, I can use my technique to throw him down,” says Nikki, age 20.

Photo © Arko Datto

At first, 20 young women participated in the programme. After their training the young women returned home to their villages, where other women with visual impairments started noticing a change in them. Not only were they starting to move freely around the village, but they also had a whole new sense of confidence.

Jayashree explains that this change inspired other young women to want the same thing for themselves. “We did a second level of training where we took on more girls,” she says, “and then they started saying, ‘Now we want to become trainers so that we can train more girls. Now that we are more confident, we can provide self-defence training.’”

Janki pinning down her competition. Judge in blue is raising his right arm to call the fight.

In Delhi in January 2017, a group of girls from the programme competed in the USHA Sports Championship for the Blind.

Photo © Arko Datto

So far the programme has trained 50-60 young women, many of whom have gone on to become self-defence trainers. The difference it has made in the womens’ lives is incredible:

“Initially [their voices were] so low,” says Jayashree, “but once they have undergone this self-defence training their voice has become so strong. They have expressed that they are able to interact with the villagers – and some of the girls who had dropped out went back to school.”

Sisters Janki (left) and Shanti have both been trained in judo. Now the sisters are able to travel around independently, and in 2016 they went to Uzbekistan to compete in an international judo competition.

Photo © Arko Datto

“Now these girls feel that they can do anything in the world,” says Jayashree. This confidence, she says, hasn’t just enabled the girls to move around freely in their hometowns. The girls have also started competing in national and international judo competitions, showing everyone around them that visually impaired girls can do anything. And they’re becoming role models not just in their communities, but further afield too.

As Jayashree puts it: “It is setting examples for more and more visually impaired girls in the world. Really these self-defence techniques have helped us in understanding that we don’t need to have a physical capability, but it is the presence of mind which will really help us to protect ourselves.”