Meet the DV survivor teaching women to 'fight like a girl'
MEL Thomas is many things. She's a black-belt martial artist, writer, Rare Birds speaker, media commentator, self-defence educator with more than 15 years experience, and "a woman on a mission".
But first and foremost, Mel is a mother of two young girls who was born into domestic violence and is determined for her daughters, Chloe and Emilie, to grow up in an environment where they are safe, feel empowered and know how to protect themselves.
Mel has been open about her front row seat to unhealthy relationships, emotional, verbal and physical violence while growing up. Terrorised by an abusive and alcoholic father (her mother and sister were also victims), and a victim of school-yard bullying, she fled home as a teenager, only to experience violence at the hands of a partner after she escaped.
Here, she relives her heartbreaking early years growing up in a family with domestic violence.
A traumatic childhood
"As a girl, I didn't know I was worth protecting, I didn't stand up for myself and others and I perpetuated the cycle of violence with abusive and controlling partners," she tells whimn.com.au. "Having lived through domestic violence, street violence, and through teen bullying (both as a victim and instigator of bullying), I know from personal experience the powerlessness of not having a voice.
"My father was the trifecta of deadbeat dads - a violent, alcoholic gambler. A classic abuser who worked hard to cut us off from the rest of the family and controlled all of our relationships.
"From an early age I suspected the verbal abuse, threats and physical violence were wrong, yet as it was the only family dynamic I had ever known, the violence became a normal part of my childhood," Mel recalls.
"Domestic violence awareness campaigns didn't exist in the 1980s. We simply accepted that 'Dad hits us, Dad loses it and Dad hurts Mum'. No kid ever came to school and claimed 'domestic violence' was a problem. Nobody asked us about the abuse in our homes and we never brought it up."
The Sydney mother-of-two was first introduced to Hapkido, a Korean form of martial art, by her husband 20 years ago (in her early 20s) and says it taught her that there was actually a way to defend herself that she never believed possible.
The moment that changed her life
Mel recounts how a chance encounter with a young girl who had also been a victim of assault changed the course of her life.
"In 2012, I met a young girl who had been assaulted by a group of boys. She was at the local park after school with her little brother, when a group of older boys came along and started making comments about her looks," she says.
"The remarks escalated and she told me she was hoping someone would come along to make the boys leave her alone. She was afraid yet found the courage to stand up and go. That's when one of the boys reached out and grabbed her by the arm. He pulled her onto his lap and the girl 'froze'. Taking her silence as consent the boys physically and mentally assaulted her.
"When she finished telling me her story she asked, 'what did I do wrong?'. I told her what I have since gone on to tell more than 10,000 students - you do the best you can with the life experience you have, and when you know better you can do better."
Fight like a girl
Desperate to help break the cycle of violence against women and children in Australia, and beyond, Mel founded KYUP! Project (Pronounced "KEY-UP!") in 2013 to empower girls to find their voice through martial arts.
Kyup is the Korean word for "shout" but Mel explains it's about so much more than a word. "KYUP! energises your core and prepares you for a challenge."
The KYUP! Project is a series of workshops that are designed to arm women and girls in self-defence by teaching them everything she knows. To date, the award-winning violence prevention education program has already helped more than 10,000 students in schools, university and community groups across Australia and New Zealand.
"I am a mother, a martial artist and a woman on a mission," Mel says. "Whether it's taking a stand for herself or others, turning around negative self talk or shouting out in self defence ... I believe every girl has a fighting spirit. She doesn't need to be a black belt to use her voice, or to know her worth, raise her standards and physically protect herself. Self protection and self worth go hand-in-hand."
Double hour of power. One of my favourite moments in these workshops is the delicious anticipation before the girls break their boards. Today we kicked the boards because the girls were kick ass in class. Violence prevention education empowers girls to feel more confident, powerful and strong. That’s their words not mine! Huge thanks to our sponsors and the fundraising efforts of individuals as part of our #championgirlchallenge at Woonona today. So much love and gratitude 🙏 @lizunovafinejewels @smaifitness @cst_pt @chedidproperty @seekanddesigncreative @adristyling @healthdigital.co #filteredmedia #kyup #kyupproject #melthomas #domesticviolence #selfworth #selfdefense
Photos and videos of the Australian of the Year Nominee's teaching practice posted to social media show young school girls smiling and laughing together as they master backflips, screech and shout at the top of their lungs, participate in trust exercises and break wooden boards bearing words such as "strong" and "powerful".
"Today, I help girls understand their body's crisis response mechanisms when faced with violence and also give them the tools to deal with past violence," she explains.
"I talk to girls about intuition and the power of the voice, not only to shout in self protection but to take a stand and speak up for herself and others. Girls learn they are stronger than they think and capable of powerfully dealing with a situation that doesn't feel right."
The stats we need to change
Looking back, Mel realises her father most likely had issues with alcoholism and mental health, however she says growing up in the 1980s in the working class suburbs of Sydney was long before the idea of "domestic violence" was ever taken seriously, let alone the topic of national discussion that it is now.
"In 1974, the year my father kicked my heavily pregnant mother in the stomach and the year I was born, New South Wales had one women's shelter. Domestic violence campaigns were non existent and AVO's would not be introduced until 1982. It would be another 14 years before courts appointed Domestic Violence Liaison Officers."
Fast forward to today:
- Intimate partner violence is the leading cause of preventable deaths for girls and women aged 15-44.
- A woman is killed each week by her partner in Australia.
- Indigenous women in some parts of Australia are 80 times more likely to be hospitalised from an assault than non indigenous women.
Tragically, the government is still failing to protect Australian women, according to a new report released this month, despite their ambitious target of reducing reoffending by 25% by 2021.
The NSW Govermnent's Safer Pathway program aiming to reduce domestic violence rates has "only had a limited effect" on the incidence of domestic violence, according to the report released by the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOSCAR).
This is the third government-led domestic violence initiative to be found to be ineffective by BOSCAR in recent months.
"It is so important for me that in 20 years time my daughters don't live in a world where these statistics are still the status quo," Mel says. "I am passionate about connecting the dots and shining a light on the family violence problem that is the same as it was 30 years ago."
If you or someone you know needs help, please contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800 RESPECT for 24/7 support.
For more information on the KYUP! Project visit: kyupproject.com.au
Mel Thomas is one of Rare Birds' inspiring female speakers bringing a diversity of perspectives to the media and professional public forums. Visit www.inspiringrarebirds.com
Rare Birds are hosting a Sydney roundtable lunch Holistic Growth: How to be happy, healthy, fulfilled and wealthy on Wednesday 23 May. For more details and to buy tickets visit Eventbrite.