November 28, 2017 02:00 PM


With her new Miss Universe crown and sash in hand, Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters is ready to get to work empowering women around the world.

The 22-year-old from South Africa is on a mission to help women feel mentally and physically prepared for anything with her Unbreakable campaign, a self-defense program inspired by her own experience being carjacked at gunpoint and almost kidnapped in June.

“I went through quite a traumatizing experience, and after that I realized that women all over the world are affected by crime, and affected by sexual harassment, and by violence,” Nel-Peters tells PEOPLE. “I really felt the need to do something and speak up about it.”

The recent college graduate was able to get away from her attackers because of a self-defense course she took with her fellow Miss South Africa finalists earlier this year.

“When I was carjacked, they pulled me out of the car and tried pushing me to the back, and that’s when I knew I was being kidnapped,” she explains. “I punched the guy in the throat and it gave me enough space to run away.”

After the incident, Nel-Peters joined forces with Women Empowered — the company that taught her the self-defense skills — to create the Unbreakable campaign in the hope of spreading the same lifesaving knowledge to women across South Africa.

“I empower women by getting experts to teach them the skills and knowledge to handle difficult situations,” she says. “I think if you’re in a nerve-racking and dangerous experience there’s no time to remember — ‘Oh I need to do this kick, and hit him there’ — but if you’re taught one movement that will save your life. We teach one skill, which is to punch the throat, because it’s something you can use when your life is in danger.”

And while Nel-Peters hoped to to help other women through her platform, she never expected it to further her own healing.

“I thought I was just going to be empowering women to know the same things that I knew before this happened to me and save them from being harmed, but what I didn’t know was that working with women all over my country and hearing their stories actually helped me to get over that experience,” she says.

Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters
PAUL BUCK/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Now Nel-Peters wants to use her title to make the Unbreakable platform accessible to all women.

“I hope to really use the Miss Universe platform to elevate the Unbreakable campaign, and hopefully host workshops all over the world,” she says. “Because traumatic incidents like mine are a reality all over the world.”

“I felt like if we as women stand together and move forward as one, we can be unbreakable.”

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