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Megha Vora fights so that girls and women in India can live fearlessly

Geeta Audi's car broke down on a dirt road in a rural enclave of Mumbai. As her driver hurried to make repairs, she spotted about a dozen men approaching the vehicle. She knew something was off.

Audi didn't want them to get any closer.

So she reached into her pocket until she felt the whistle, recalling what Sensei Megha Vora taught her, pulled it to her lips and blew as loud and furiously as she could until the group ran off.

"This whistle saved my life," Audi said in a video message she sent to Vora, chief instructor at the Women's Self-Defense Center of India. "I owe my life to this center."

Blowing a whistle might seem like an ordinary action, but it is one of the first lessons Vora teaches to the more than 20,000 women who have taken her and her husband's self-defense courses since 2014. Before the women in her classes ever learn to strike, they are taught how to use other tactics to deter attacks. As part of the lesson, they are given whistles, traditionally associated in India with police and other figures of authority, to blow if they cannot scream loud enough to frighten their potential attackers.

"In India, there are women whose voices are silenced from 6,000 years of culture that tells them to be quiet," Vora says. "It's the mentality -- vinamra in Hindi -- that means a woman must be soft-spoken, respectful and never talk back. If she cannot scream, the whistle becomes her voice."

After co-founding her first center with her husband, Mehul, and two others -- a prominent Mumbai politician and popular Bollywood actor -- in 2014, Vora has launched or affiliated herself with eight other centers across four Indian states: Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan and West Bengal. Her goal is to open 1,000 centers across India eventually.

"I want to reach so many women that we go out of business," says Vora, 39, who holds black belts in Goju-ryu karate and Japanese jujitsu. "So many women that we won't need self-defense centers in India anymore because every woman will know how to defend herself."

Vora, who was selected as a delegate for the 2017 Global Sports Mentoring Program, an initiative by espnW and the U.S. State Department, found her way to martial arts later in life. She had grown up in a traditional Hindu family and had been told to prioritize academics above all else. When gangs of boys in her community harassed the girls on their way home from school, she would lower her head and walk straight to her door. Fighting back never crossed her mind.

Eventually, Vora couldn't take it anymore. At Mumbai University, she met her future husband and business partner, Mehul. Just a friend then, he offered to teach her how to defend herself after hearing stories of the harassment Vora and other girls in her neighborhood regularly endured.

One day when one of the local boys touched her inappropriately as she walked home from school, Vora fought back for the first time. She says she felt power seep from her pores and into her fists.

Years later, in 2012, Vora and her husband watched from home as the details of the horrific Nirbhaya gang-rape case were broadcast across Indian television. The fury bubbled inside of her again.

"All these years, I had been a changed person because of martial arts -- a new person," Vora says. "It was time for me to do something for women in my country."

Throughout this September and October, Vora spent five weeks in the United States as part of GSMP, where she was mentored by Julie Eddleman, global client partner for Google. Eddleman has participated as a mentor in the program since 2012, and two years ago mentored another Indian woman, Pavithra Chandra, who founded B7 Sports, a basketball academy serving girls in Bangalore.

During her time in the U.S., Chandra echoed the same stories Vora now shares.

"As empowered women, we can globetrot, but then we return home and are fearful to step outside of our houses," Chandra said as she discussed the Nirbhaya case during a presentation in Washington. "This is the reality for my Indian sisters. We live in a culture that says there is no place for a woman. This is what we must fight against."

That is the fight Vora has taken up. Upon returning home, she will set to work on how she can use self-defense to build a community of physically and emotionally strong women in Mumbai and across India. She knows it will not be easy, and that it will take time. But that is why Vora and Eddleman titled the action plan she developed during their time together, simply, "I Rise."

Brian Canever is the digital content manager for the Center for Sport, Peace, & Society at the University of Tennessee and works closely with the GSMP participants.