(CNN)For Janki Goud, the threat of rape has long loomed large.
In the state of Madhya Pradesh in northern India, where Goud lives, rape is among the most common crimes against women. The region accounted for 4,882 of the 38,947 cases of rape reported nationally in 2016, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
“We started self-defence and judo because the women living in this area with disabilities expressed so much fear that they could face abuse and attacks if they traveled unaccompanied outside their homes,” said Jayashree Kumar, Sightsavers program manager in Madhya Pradesh.
But Goud says judo has transformed her life.
“In my village, I did not have any problems because of my blindness,” Goud said through an interpreter. “But when I go to the neighborhood around, my movements are restricted. Then, when nobody is with me and I can’t see, some people try to take advantage of that opportunity.“
‘This has changed my life’
Goud lost her sight after contracting measles at age 5.
When she was first approached for the program in 2010, her confidence was so low that she barely spoke a word, according to organizers.
Today, she is something of a spokeswoman for the project. She has taken younger judoka under her wing and has competed in the sport on the international stage.
“I only started judo training for self-defense,” she said. “That was the main aim of the program. I didn’t have much knowledge in self-defense of judo when I started. The instructor motivated me and people like me who can’t see.”
Instructors were specially trained to teach girls with visual impairment, using physical touch and sounds, such as claps, as well as clear, easy to understand instructions, according to Sightsavers.
“The specially designed training program organized with the help of the Department of Crime Against Women and Madhya Pradesh police helped us build confidence in the visually impaired girls,” said Rakesh Singh of Tarun Sanskar, a local organization that works to empower women with disabilities in collaboration with Sightsavers.
Goud became national champion in blind judo in 2017 and traveled on a plane for the first time last year to win bronze at the International Blind Sports Federation in Uzbekistan.
Competing instilled pride in her, and her wider community, when people had previously “thought I couldn’t do anything.” As she puts it, “my family is feeling good. This has changed my life.”
It’s not just one life that has been overhauled by the program, thanks predominantly to Jayahree Kumar, Sightsavers program manager who started the judo training.
The project is growing into other regions, including neighboring Rajasthan, and Kumar is hopeful it could spread nationally.
“People who are blind face enormous difficulties, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, and these challenges are often more acute for girls and women who are blind,” said Dr. Clare Gilbert, professor of international eye health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, who is not involved in the program. “Most of the difficulties young women encounter arise not because of what they cannot do or find difficult to do but because of the attitudes of their families, who want to protect them, and the wider community, who often denigrate or abuse them.”
Gilbert added that the self-confidence and skill now shown by young women like Goud is commendable. “They have been able change often deeply entrenched attitudes,” she said.
An empowering journey
Being taught judois a journey about empowerment and giving women a voice they didn’t have.
“These girls really lack confidence,” Kumar said. “They have low self-esteem, and their body language is so negative, so I realized we should organize a program for these young girls so that they can come out of their homes.”
According to Kumar, records show that 98% of the rape cases are from people known to the person in question, and 25% of those are a neighbor.
“You’ve situations where they come out and have uncles and cousins that touch their bodies, and they don’t realize that was sexual abuse,” she said.
“So there’s an element of education so they realize then that it’s something that has to be stopped. There’s fear, as some parents don’t listen to their problems. This is why confidence is so low. The question was often, ‘if someone attacks me, how will I protect myself? I’m a blind person, and I can’t do anything.’
“This self-defense means these girls can escape emergency, potentially life-changing situations,” Kumar added. “It’s so dangerous for blind girls and women in India. It’s a really vulnerable situation to be in. We just want to reduce that.”
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