It was Poonam Khatoon’s karate skills that first drew the attention of United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her visit to the city last month.

The brief interaction with the daughter of a sex worker seems to have made quite an impression on Ms. Clinton, who has reportedly spoken of her quite often, after returning to Washington.

Poonam is a member of the Nat caste, a nomadic community found across north India. She was rescued by activists from the red-light area in Araria, Bihar.

The Nats have a history of “systemic exploitation of a community” with most of the men forced into petty crime by the upper castes and the women forced into prostitution, said Tinku Khanna, an activist with Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an NGO working against human-trafficking in the region.

Excelling in studies

Poonam, who is going to appear for her Standard X Board examinations in 2013, was among the children who were brought away from the red-light area. Some, like Poonam, had never attended school. They were put through an intensive bridge course for two years and then sent to high school, where Poonam performed really well, said Ms. Khanna.

Apart from excelling in her studies and developing into a good orator, she did well in karate as well. She is now a state-level champion in karate, Ms.Khanna added.

“In the course of interactions with the women, who had been forced into prostitution, they talked of the need for hostels for their children. So we got in touch with the district authorities and together initiated a programme in 2007,” she said.

Early in 2008, the programme added karate to the curriculum.

Self-defence

Various issues such as inhibitions regarding the body, gender stereotypes could be dealt with if the girls learnt how to defend themselves. Crimes against women are rampant in the Araria, but with the knowledge of self-defence techniques, girls like Poonam can handle tough situations with confidence, Ms. Khanna said.

For the activists, Poonam’s success is a vindication of five years of struggle with the programme. In the initial stages, the first-generation learners, who had never been to school, were unhappy, and many tried to run away.

Poonam herself was very unhappy with the hostel restrictions and wanted to leave. But with time she grew confident; confident enough to walk up to Ms. Clinton and ask her if she wanted to see some karate moves.