Program in Utta Pradesh: For India’s girls to grow strong

Status: 01/23/2022 02:44 am

Poonam Rai’s in-laws abused her and today she is paralyzed. She organizes taekwondo courses to make India’s young girls self-confident: they should be able to defend themselves.

By Peter Hornung, ARD Studio New Delhi

A group of young teenage girls and younger practice in white taekwondo gowns. A few guys are there too. “I’m learning taekwondo to protect myself as a woman,” says 13-year-old Tamnna Prajpati. “And when I’ve learned it, I’ll pass it on to younger people so they can defend themselves and don’t do what happens to girls anymore.”

Peter Horning
ARD Studio New Delhi

The fact that children and young people in Varanasi in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh are learning this Far Eastern art of defense goes back to Poonam Rai’s initiative.

“I motivate the girls, organize the taekwondo courses so that they become strong enough to protect themselves if they are exposed to violence in the future,” says the 47-year-old. “If I had been strong then, this wouldn’t have happened to me. That’s why I want to make all the girls in my organization strong.”

A taekwondo class organized by Poonam Rai.

Image: ARD Studio New Delhi

In-laws abused Rai

“Back then”, that was almost exactly 25 years ago. In February 1997 something happened to her that horribly changed her life. First she asks not to be asked about it: “Please ask questions of the present,” she says.

Then she tells you. As a young, well-educated wife, she went to live with her in-laws, as is usual in India. They mistreated her, it was only about the money, the dowry. They ended up throwing her off a balcony.

Spinal fractures, a partial paraplegia: she could only lie down for more than 17 years, often with unimaginable pain. But Poonam Rai has learned to walk again. She moves around with a walker. Slowly, with a lot of will and strength, but she goes.

Poonam Rai is partially paralyzed today but uses a walker to get around.

Image: Peter Hornung / ARD Studio New Delhi

gender hierarchy

Domestic violence against women, especially by parents-in-law, was not uncommon in the 1990s, says women’s activist Vasanthi Raman, and unfortunately that’s still the case in India today: “When parents-in-law find out that their son’s wife is well educated , maybe even some kind of career woman, then they want to break her up. Because they want a daughter-in-law to be a slave at home.”

Things have gotten a little better over the past 20 or 30 years since violence was inflicted on Poonam Rai. But it is far from good. New numbers were released a few days ago. According to this, there were 25 percent more complaints from women about domestic violence during the corona pandemic.

“There are many people who deal with the issue of violence against women and also with the issue of dowry, which is closely related to it. But it’s not criminal law, it’s civil law,” says Raman. “Only in places where there is an active civil society do women get support to go to court.”

That still needs time in India, she says: “The caste mentality is deeply rooted in our society, a hierarchical society. And when it comes to maintaining the hierarchy, gender is also crucial.”

“Only men were allowed to say no”

Poonam Rai took the initiative – with her organization, which wants to empower girls in a society that, despite all the modern paint, is still shaped by misogynistic traditions.

The young generation gives her hope, says Poonam. “Yes, there are some changes. I just have to look at my daughter, she’s 24. I’m not putting pressure on her to get married now. She should be independent. Only if it really fits, then I think she should get married.”

Girls used to have no say in marriage – “only men were allowed to say no,” says Rai. But that’s different in her family.

Image: Peter Hornung / ARD Studio New Delhi

Poonam Rai is proud of her photo together with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Image: ARD Studio New Delhi

The many awards Rai has received for her work hang on the wall of her office. She is particularly proud of a picture with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Some girls took part in competitions at the national level, some even went to the Olympics, some of them set world records and were in the Guinness Book of Records.

She has received a lot of recognition, she says, but she will always continue. Women are still lagging behind, but I want to see them on an equal footing. Anything a man can do, I can do,” she stresses. “I don’t feel the lower part of my body anymore, but with sheer willpower, I still go out with the walker and teach and motivate the girls. It makes her stronger.”

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