In Australia, one in three women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence perpetrated by someone known to them. On average, one woman is killed every week by a current or former partner. Meanwhile, one in four children are exposed to domestic violence.
Mel Thomas, was one of those children. The mother of two, writer, speaker and self defence educator grew up in the 1980s in the working class suburbs of Sydney. Thomas, her sister and her mother were all victims of abuse at the hands of her father, whom Thomas now realises probably had issues with alcoholism and mental health. “For me it was quite normal at the time,” she reflects. “We grew up with family violence, where dad would hit mum and he would hit us.”
Thomas says that this was long before the idea of “domestic violence” was ever taken seriously, let alone it being the topic of national discussion as it is now. Thomas says that the normalisation of domestic violence meant that, like so many other victims, she did not realise that this sort of family behaviour was outside of the norm. “Most of my friends were actually going through the same experience,” she says. “You would hear your neighbours fighting or there would be kids coming to school with tell-tale signs of abuse, but you just didn’t realise what was going on. There was no conversation around it.”
Thomas says that the situation reached crisis point for her family numerous times, as her mother repeatedly tried to leave although most of her attempts were unsuccessful. Thomas would later leave home by herself at the age of 15 and ended up living with friends and engaging with what Thomas now refers to as “pretty heavy characters” – “I suddenly had 100 per cent autonomy which was not good for a teenager,” she says.
As Thomas began dating she said that this cycle of violence continued, and she often found herself in controlling relationships, “One of my first boyfriends was really violent over nothing,” she recalls.
Changing the Conversation
A turning point for Thomas was taking up martial arts, where she would learn much more than just how to defend herself physically, “Martial arts was absolutely a huge turning point for me because it was a very personal journey,” she says. “A lot of the aspects of the martial arts’ journey such as etiquette, respect and self worth I would not have learnt at home.”
Later Thomas would meet and marry her husband and together have their first daughter. Thomas says that the experience of motherhood made her consider her upbringing in a whole new light, “When my daughter was born, honestly I looked at her and I couldn’t believe that my dad had been so cruel and unhappy. I was holding this beautiful little life in my hands and was wondering what was going on for him.”
However it was when she attended a martial arts careers seminar that she realised that perhaps she could be part of the solution to family violence. At the seminar a 14 year old girl approached Thomas and shared her own experience of being assaulted and asked if she might teach some classes in self defence at the girl’s school. Thomas says that she could identify with the young girl who was at that time blaming herself, and realised that young children, particularly girls needed to know that violence was a cycle. “I was just connecting all the dots, it was like an awakening.”
That conversation prompted Thomas to start the KYUP! Project, running martial arts and violence prevention workshops in schools. Based upon the Korean word that is shouted in martial arts, KYUP is based upon giving vulnerable people a voice. “It is about how we can use our voice to not only speak out but also to turn around negative self talk, and of course shout out to protect ourselves,” says Thomas.
Thomas says it is about creating a community and giving children a voice, and the confidence to overcome challenges. “It’s more than just teaching how to fight off attackers,” she says. “KYUP! Equips young people with de-escalation tools and focuses on building self-esteem, as well as strategies on how to deal with past violence.”
While the issue of domestic violence has now become a national concern, Thomas says that there is still more work to be done. “I want to work with governments to be part of the solution,” she says. “There are still a lot of gaping holes when it comes to family violence, particularly in terms of kids. But what we are doing is empowering those kids to have a voice.”
To find out more about the KYUP! project and how you might get involved, see their website here
If you or someone you know needs help, 1800RESPECT is the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service. Dial 1800 RESPECT (1800 7277 328)