In their neat white uniforms, with bright cords knotted at their waists, the 10 young teenagers look like any of the other competitors nervously warming up. Skilfully executing kicks, blocks and punches in a gym in Nepal, they eye off the shiny medals up for grabs.
But unlike their competition in the International Karate Championships, these talented youngsters all come from a slum in India. No one expected that the classes designed to teach them to defend themselves could have led to them vying for an international gold medal.
Hailing from a community where raw sewerage runs down the streets, life was dangerous for the Compassion sponsored students. Alcohol and drug abuse were rampant in their neighbourhood. Walking down the streets, the girls often had to face lewd remarks from the local youth.
When the rape and murder of a college student in the capital of Delhi made international headlines, staff at the Compassion child development centre took action. Hiring a martial arts coach, they asked him to teach the children, especially the girls, self-defence skills. Sixty children turned up for the lessons.
As the weeks went by, and the vigorous training took its toll, the numbers dwindled. Eventually, a small but determined group of students remained. Dedicated, they began training together for two hours every day after school.
Surprised at the depth of talent amongst his students, Coach Gautum decided to enter them into a local competition to boost their self-confidence. There was just one problem: his students couldn’t afford the uniforms.
“We learned that without proper gear, such as gloves, head guards and uniforms, a player cannot participate in a competition,” says Compassion East India Program Director Denis Jonathan. “We wanted our children to know that we care for their needs and encourage their development, so we got the things arranged.”
Properly kitted out, the students were ready for their first competition—a division-level event. To everyone’s surprise, all 10 children won a medal. The trials for the national level were being held at the same venue. Coach Gautum encouraged his pupils to enter, just for fun. To his delight, every one of his students qualified for India’s national karate championships.
With their confidence growing, the team performed even better at the higher level competition. Not only did each child place, but they all automatically qualified for the international championship.
“When our children started training for karate, we never thought that they had so much potential, because our objective was to only train them with basic self-defence skills to protect themselves,” says Denis Jonathan.
Eyes set on the 19th International High School Karate Championship, to be held in Nepal, the team began training in earnest. After months of hard work and preparation, they travelled to the neighbouring country in May 2013, and converged upon the competition hall. Up against competitors from 80 schools across three countries—India, Bangladesh and Nepal—their nervousness was palpable.
The competition was fierce, but the team’s grit and determination paid off. Kamini, in her final match for a medal, was down four points to her opponent. With three seconds left on the clock, she made the score 5-4, taking home the silver medal. The rest of the team was just as successful, each winning a silver or bronze medal.
They returned home to a heroes’ welcome at the Compassion centre. Dubbed the ‘karate kids’ by the community, the group have become local celebrities. Importantly, the original aim of the lessons has not been forgotten. The youth who made lewd remarks towards the girls now keep their distance, afraid they might be on the receiving end of a swift kick.
“It gives me great joy that my daughter went to Nepal to participate at an international karate championship, but if it was not for the [Compassion] centre, this would not have been possible,” says Kamini’s father. “I am happy that our daughters are safe now because they know how to defend themselves when harassed in public.”
Program director Denis Jonathan says after seeing the children’s outstanding performance in karate, the curriculum will have a renewed focus on sports. For the children and teenagers who would otherwise have no way of realising their athletic dreams, this is a huge blessing.
“If our children can perform in karate at the highest level, I am sure they can in sporting events like football and hockey,” he says. “We want our children to engage in sports and get good training to be able to represent at the state and national level, because it will not only give them a sense of pride but will also boost their self-confidence.”
With their medals slung around their necks, the karate kids can’t keep the grins off their faces.
Words by Provashish Dutta and Zoe Noakes