We know how important mentoring is to our program, and the quality of mentors makes the program so effective and valuable for our girls. For our most recent mentoring event, we invited a Didi (elder sister), Sanju Maharjan, who considers herself a self-defense coach. As someone who holds several trophies and titles in martial arts nationally and internationally, and as the Chief Coach and Branch Chief of the Nepal Self-defense Association that provides self-defense training to more than 50,000 girls, it is a bit of an understatement.

A Girl With a Dream and Unshakeable Determination

Sanju was born in a middle-class family of five in Kathmandu. Growing up with 2 brothers, she wanted to play sports, especially Wushu (known as kung fu). Unlike her brothers, she was not encouraged to participate. Girls were considered too delicate for such things. Sanju is many things, but delicate is not one of them, and she was not going to accept this excuse for her not being able to participate. She kept pleading with her parents to let her join a Karate class, but they did not budge. Her interest in martial arts grew stronger day by day. One day she took the drastic action of stealing some money from home and went shopping for a Karate uniform. While not pleased with her action, her parents finally understood that Sanju was not going to be denied a chance to take part. This is how Sanju described the start of her journey in martial arts.

Society was not ready for girls playing boy sports

After finally winning over her parents, Sanju still had to deal with others who thought it was not appropriate for her to take part in sports like martial arts. She shared stories about how she used to get criticism and even harassment from neighbors for taking part in sports with boys. But, she did not let such things deter her from something she enjoyed so much. In fact, those negative comments motivated her even more to work harder and to get better to show everyone that a girl can be good at anything if given a chance. Her hard work paid off when she won a trophy and came home holding it in her hand. The critics had less and less to say when she started winning trophy after trophy, and even her parents who reluctantly let her start martial arts started to feel proud of her too.

Mastering her craft

Sanju was doing very well in martial arts where she won several medals in national competitions and eventually earned a 5th level Black Belt. She was even becoming famous for her abilities and she wanted to share the lessons she had learned through martial arts to others, especially girls and women. She shared with us about an incident that became a turning point in her life. She decided to become a self-defense trainer when one of her coaches tried to harass her when she was sixteen years old. Luckily, her training in Martial arts and her physical and mental strength made her able to defend herself.

From mastering her craft to becoming a teacher

Since Sanju’s main focus in her young life had been on martial arts, she neglected her studies and eventually dropped out of school in the 8th grade. Unfortunately, for her, like many girls who drop out of school early, she also got married at a very young age. Unlike many girls in that situation though, she was lucky to have a husband and in-laws who were actually supportive of her. During that time, she became the mother of two children, one daughter and a son. Her family supported her martial arts career by looking after the children and let her do her work. As her focus shifted to wanting to teach self-defense, she started to feel guilty for dropping out of school, and felt uncomfortable talking about her education. To become a teacher and a trainer, she realized that her sport abilities alone could take her only so far without an education. She decided to go back to school, and with her strong determination and willpower, she completed a Bachelor’s degree. She wants to continue even further and get a Masters degree soon. With her determination, we have no doubt she will achieve it.

Becoming a Guru

After shifting her focus from a career in martial arts and competition to teaching, Sanju has now trained more than 50,000 girls. She feels very proud of her work and even refers to herself as a self-defense coach rather than a martial artist. She shared a story with the audience that highlights why she feels so proud of this work. She told a story about a 12-year-old girl who was able to defend herself from being a victim of abuse by one of her own family members, even after just two days of self-defense training.

Advice from life experiences

Sanju finished up the program by sharing some reflections and answering some questions. She was very honest when she said that she made some mistakes in her life, and dropping out of school and even getting married at an early age were two key examples. She said that she was lucky to get a second chance at education, which would not have been possible without family support. Something that not many (if not most) girls ever get. Her final remarks were to tell the girls to stay in school and to only get married once they have gone after their dreams and become independent.

Q&A Session

When she finished her story, she encouraged the bahinis to ask if they had any questions for her. It was great to see the girls being so interested in learning more and the resulting Q&A was great. There were two questions that Sanju really appreciated.

Do you still see discrimination between girls and boys in sports?
There is still discrimination everywhere, and definitely there is discrimination in sports too. However, if you are good at what you do, you can make a career in sports as well. I am an example of that.

When did you feel that you became a successful woman?
Actually, I don’t know if there is an easy answer for what success is. But, if someday all girls could defend themselves, and if my coaching has something to do with that, I would consider that a success for me.

About Dipa Kuikel-Pudasaini

I live in Gopaleswor, a place just a bit outside Pharping. I live with my husband's joint family of 8 including our little baby boy. I earned my Masters’ degree from Tri Chandra College in Kathmandu and I have worked as a Primary school teacher at Shikharapur School and also as a +2 Level teacher at Shikharapur Open school. I really love teaching, and in the little free time I have I love reading books (especially novels) and listening to music. At the foundation I am excited to take on the challenge of leading our GLOW Club Nepal program as a Partnership Coordinator. This fantastic program, which is supported by our amazing partners Global GLOW is an important part of our overall program and we have clubs in many different schools and communities, and I am excited to do everything I can to continue it success.
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