Why I am travelling to India to fight for gender equality

By Clara How, Apr 25, 2019

Qin Yunquan is the chief executive and instructor of Kapap Academy (a self-defence school), and she has built a formidable reputation as an advocate for female empowerment. She’s trained approximately 58,000 students since her first introduction to the martial arts scene 10 years ago, and today, 90 per cent of her students are women.

The draw? Yunquan specialises in teaching self-defence skills in real life scenarios, such as getting out of a chokehold, and reading body language of potential attackers. This isn’t hardcore MMA - it’s life skills.

I first interviewed Yunquan a year or so ago, because she was getting some serious exposure. She received the Queen’s Young Leaders Award 2017 from the Queen of England herself, and she was a finalist of the Straits Times Singaporean of the Year 2018. And more recently, she was one of four women chosen by Converse to front their international campaign on female empowerment - and she was the only representative from Asia.  But accolades aside, we ended up speaking a lot about her personal life. 

In her teens, Yunquan struggled with an eating disorder that almost took her life. “I felt that appearance was what really mattered for people to accept me,” she told me. Taking up martial arts and becoming an instructor gave her new purpose, and she wanted to share those skills with students, particularly women.  

When we parted last year, she told me about her plans to take her self-defence classes regional, specifically India. I wanted to find out how her plans were going, so I reached out to her again to her again to see if any of these plans had come to fruition. This isn’t so much of an origin story - that has been covered before in the media. This story is about looking forward.

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People have heard about my story, about how I overcame my personal insecurities. But now I don’t want people to just see me as a self-defence instructor - I want them to see me as a social activist who fights for issues like gender equality. Self-defence is just my tool to achieve these goals. 

This picture was taken when I was a teenager battling anorexia.

This picture was taken when I was a teenager battling anorexia.

On top of teaching my regular classes at Kapap Academy, I give workshops and talks. This includes working with non-profit organisations and shelters, to train disadvantaged women in self-defence.

In the early stages of working with these women, I would go home and cry, because you see how much they have suffered. In one of the shelters for abused women, I also encountered their children. These children are different because they have grown up in violence - when you see them, you see their insecurities. Some of them also have a bullying mentality because that’s all they have known.

The first feeling I felt was of sadness, because they have done nothing to deserve this. The next feeling I had was of anger, at how much injustice there is. 

It’s just not right that this is happening. That was when I asked myself, what can I do?

In my early years of training in martial arts, I thought about giving up because I thought I wasn’t good enough. My mentor was trying to train me in leadership skills, and back then I hated managing people. I felt like I was failing, and started to ask myself if all this hard work was worth it. But one late night, when I was doing some self-reflection on how I was feeling, a phrase popped into my head: your life isn’t your own, and everything happens for a reason. Maybe I was born to do this.

I told myself that you know what, I’m going to put in my 100 per cent into this for the next ten years. I will do nothing but work on this - training and impacting other lives. 10 years have passed and I will be 30 this year, and now I’m more clear on what I want to do.

I’ve always been an empathetic person and have always wanted to help people. But 10 years ago I just didn’t quite know how. To me, help meant giving these workshops, helping people who needed assistance. But now I see that there’s a bigger picture, and bigger goals, such as fighting against human trafficking. When we started our business 10 years ago, it was just about building our reputation and sustaining it financially. Now, I have the time and resources to see what I can do overseas.

Post-training session with the staff of Ng Teng Fong General Hospital.

Post-training session with the staff of Ng Teng Fong General Hospital.

India has always been on the horizon for me. I read about Jyoti Singh, a young woman who was brutally raped by six men in Delhi and eventually passed away due to the injuries sustained. What she went through was real torture. And I read about completely unwarranted acid attacks on women. It made me want to go to India so I could do something about the situation.

In the way that life is, India wasn’t our first international outreach. We’ve already been to Malaysia, China, and Indonesia. Malaysia was our first overseas venture, where I gave corporate talks about educating people about self-defence. We went on our own steam and the talks were free, just to put ourselves out there. Paid jobs have developed from this.

Now, we have two upcoming opportunities in India, and I will be travelling there with another female instructor, Nicole Teo, at the end of April. We will be working with Akhand Jyoti, a non-profit organisation in Bihar that provides free eye treatment and surgery for cataracts (which is the leading cause of blindness in Bihar).

They also take in girls from villages around the area, train them in optometry and pay them a salary that’s above average in the region. This way, they get an education and an elevated status because of their spending power.

But it’s not just about giving them a job - some of these girls would have been sold as slaves for as little as USD50. To put this into perspective, the operation for cataracts would cost USD70.

Akhand Jyoti’s founder is a retired footballer who witnessed this first hand, and when he asked the fathers why they were selling their children, they answered that it was because they were losing their sight, and have to resort to selling their daughters to make ends meet. Most of them would end up in prostitution.

This is what we have planned for the trip: once we get to Bihar, we will be living in the same hostel as the girls in Akhand Jyoti. Throughout the day, we will be teaching batches of 50 girls, and in total we will impact 200 women (ages between 18 and early 20s). They will learn basic skills like how to get out if someone grabs them, and body positioning to avoid getting ambushed.

On our last day, we will select those who are more kinesthetically inclined, so that we can train them to help the other girls after we leave.

It all happened so quickly - a mutual friend connected us, and we are fortunate that the funding is coming from the organisation themselves. We see this as our chance to understand the market in India and tweaking our techniques to suit their needs so we can have this knowledge for subsequent trips.

Before I go, I do have to manage my own fears.  I can take safety precautions but it can only go so far.

I know that I’m going there to change some deep rooted social norms, where some men think they have the right to rape, to throw acid, to sell their daughters. We call ourselves changemakers, but they might call us troublemakers - who can say what they might do to us?

But it’s about managing that part of you and asking what is more important. I think being fearless is about knowing your fears, and then facing them. It’s about knowing that something could be dangerous and you’re afraid, but still doing it anyway because it’s something you’re called to do. It is important enough.

Demonstrating how to get out of a chokehold with a hammer strike to the groin

Demonstrating how to get out of a chokehold with a hammer strike to the groin

The second outreach will be working with Lakshya Jeevan Jagriti, a social enterprise that takes in women from the slums and give them skills that can get them employed, like IT training and literacy. These girls from the slums are targeted for crimes such as rape, and they might not be able to afford legal defence.

Where we come in is we want to change both their skillset and their mindset, so they can have more self-confidence. In the long run, perhaps they can become instructors and run their own self-defence school.

We have not received any funding for this, and we are holding a fundraiser - our aim is to raise SGD10,000, to be spread over two trips and a target impact group of 600 girls in total. In the past, I hated having to manage money. But now I’m a lot more business minded. Unfortunately, you do need money to make dreams a reality. 

Instead of just being a dreamer, I can be a realist and an activist. Money isn’t the end goal, but it is the means for us to do what we need to do.

At the end of the day, what I’d like to say to women is that we should empower one another. Let’s believe in ourselves, and one another. Help doesn’t always have to be physical - it could also be in the form of enabling others. There are many ways to do this, such as giving words of encouragement, passing on skills and knowledge, donating even a small amount like a dollar. Or even just spreading the word about causes that make an impact, which is what we’re doing now.

Let’s pay it forward, and let’s see how we can help other women.

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We also spoke with Master Teo Yew Chye, Yunquan’s mentor and founder of Kapap Academy. This is what he has to say about Yunquan’s upcoming trip to India.

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Change only comes when people make some kind of sacrifice. 

Change doesn’t happen just by liking or sharing a Facebook post. Change comes when people put their boots on, and work on the ground. Not everyone is willing to do that and we understand, but we hope that people hear our story and help us to help other people. 

My daughter, Nicole Teo, is going with Yunquan to India, and honestly, I’m worried. She is my only daughter, my precious child. And there is a real danger in their going to a country to upset an existing social order. I can’t go with them because as a man, I can’t physically touch the girls during training. Plus, it sends a strong message to see two female instructors. 

But my daughter is going because I want her to lead by example. Since young, I have told her, I don’t need you to be rich, or beautiful. I just want you to be a decent, compassionate human being. Singaporeans have so much, we forget about other societies in the world where a little can go a long way. 

My daughter isn’t just a self-defence instructor - she’s also a coder. We have a free personal safety app called Angel Wings that’s still in the prototype stage, and she’s currently working on this with a partner who is a Stanford graduate and an IT expert. It’s a tracking device, so if you’re overseas or anytime you sense that you’re in danger, you can send out your location to your family and friends (or “Circle of Angels”). It has other functions such as a panic button that allows you to sound an alarm, as well as take a photo of your assailant and forward it to your Circle of Angels. 

Looking after yourself doesn’t just have to be in the physical aspect, because we understand that not everyone wants to learn this. But there’s also other forms of self-protection, like embracing technology. And that’s what the spirit of self-defence is about.

To be continued. Part two of this story can be read here.

Writer’s Note:

At the time of publication, Yunquan and Nicole are currently in Bihar. We will be checking in with her to hear more about her Akhand Joti trip once she returns home. Should you want more information (or if you would like to donate), details on the fundraiser for Lakshya Jeevan Jagriti can be found here:

Pictures provided by Qin Yunquan. 

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