Meet the Match
An Indian Self-Defense Expert Fights for Women's Rights
The gang of boys was out on the street again. In Megha Vora’s neighborhood in Mumbai, India, they seemed to everywhere, harassing the girls as they walked back and forth to school. As a young woman, she would tell herself, “Just put your head down and get straight home.”
Raised in a conservative Hindu Gujarati family, Megha was not trained to react to hostility. When she left for Mumbai University, where she was completing a bachelor’s degree in commerce, she befriended a boy named Mehul, a black belt in karate, and told him about the boys from her neighborhood. Mehul offered to give her free classes for a few months. Later, when a boy known for physically abusing and teasing girls threatened Megha, she finally stood up for herself.
“Something snapped in me that day,” Megha says. “The courage came to me; I bashed that boy up black and blue. That was the first time I experienced the power I had inside me. All these years of being quiet and not doing anything. That made a big difference in my life.”
In 2000, Megha and Mehul were married and they now have two children together. After their marriage, they began organizing free martial arts tournaments for kids in Mumbai. The tournaments gained the attention of prominent Indian film actor Akshay Kumar, who endorsed them. Their first tournament was held over four days with 5,000 children in attendance. The impact was so incredible that Megha and Mehul have organizing these events for the past eight years.
After the Nirbhaya gang rape case shook India and attracted international attention in 2012, Megha decided to shift her focus to women. She and Mehul opened their first self-defense center for women in 2014. Since then, they have launched six more centers around India. In total, more than 20,000 women have graduated from the Women’s Self Defense Center’s (WSDC) basic course, which includes physical training, confidence exercises, and preventive training like screaming and verbal de-escalation. Megha serves as the chief instructor at the main center in Mumbai.
“Every day women have these gender differences drilled into our heads,” Megha says. “We’re fighting 6,000 years of culture and conditioning to be quiet. Most of our women aren’t able to scream. These are women overcoming rape and domestic abuse. They are so strong, and this is making a difference. We will never shut this down.”
According to statistics from United Nations Women, India ranks 125th in the world in gender equality. While laws exist to protect women, 37 percent of women across the country report experiencing physical or sexual violence. Addressing these challenges also provides its own cultural complications. According to Megha, many parents who hear about her seminars will send their sons instead of daughters to classes. The concept that women are not suited for martial arts permeates Indian culture. In many communities, this results in girls and women lacking the stamina and health required for physical activity and sports.
“The WSDC is bigger than the martial arts,” Megha says. “Women have many needs. We want to add a nutritional component to the course, as well as a legal panel where girls can come to learn about how they can seek justice if they need it. We need to get them actual counselors; these girls have gone through abuse and violence, and we know we’re not trained to advise them in the best way.”
Megha would like to create a train-the-trainers program for graduates of the course who want to return as coaches. This program would serve as an avenue for providing employment opportunities, as well as a way of expanding her network and reaching her ultimate dream of launching on 1,000 centers across India. In order to achieve these goals, she seeks a greater knowledge of global best practices and training methods, as well as how to approach corporations for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) investment.
Through the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program, Megha will have an ideal mentor to achieve her goals. Julie Eddleman, global client partner for Google, has extensive experience in working with global brands, and is the five-time returning mentor to the program, who mentored India’s Pavithra Chandra in 2015. Julie’s vast network and knowledge of working with corporate entities that support women’s empowerment initiatives will be key resources for Megha as she gets one step closer to making communities around India safer for women and girls.