As part of our Active Voices campaign, we had a heart-to-heart with Founder and CEO of KYUP! Project, Mel Thomas. A mother of two with over 15 years martial arts experience, Mel is a fearless game-changer. She created KYUP! Project, a revolutionary self-worth and self-protection program to break the cycle of violence against women and children. As a victim of domestic violence herself, Mel uses her resilient voice to change the future for kids and women living with family violence. Read the full interview below;
Unleash your passion: what do you stand for?
I am a mother, black-belt martial artist, passionate speaker, published writer and advocate for breaking the cycle of violence against women and children across Australia. I am proud to have founded the KYUP! Project, where I host 2.5-hour interactive-style workshops for groups of 50 – 100 students. teaching young people self worth, ethical bystanding, helping them to see their value in society and giving them the self-defence skills to stand up for themselves when they know something isn’t right.
How hard a girl fights for her own safety is often in direct measure to how much she believes she’s worth — I’m dedicated to making sure every young girl in Australia grows up knowing her worth and is equipped with the self-defence skills to protect herself from violence. More than 10,000 students and young women have participated in my KYUP! violence prevention education programs since 2013 and I’m not stopping there!
Was there a pivotal moment that made you think ‘everyone needs to hear what I have to say’?
When I was growing up I was convinced I wasn’t a victim of domestic violence growing up, that was my mum; I wasn’t a victim of street violence, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time; and when it came to my relationships, I should have known better than ‘to set my boyfriend off’. As a survivor of childhood domestic violence and both ‘victim and perpetrator’ of teen bullying, I overcame my own adversity by finding resilience, taking courage and developing my self-esteem and skills through martial arts. I realised I was not alone in my experiences and that other young girls and women were being doubted, abused, harassed and that they too could go through the transformation I did, if someone helped them to discover their self-worth and find their own strength. I made a big decision to speak out for the benefit of others and instead of hiding what I had been through, own it to empower other young girls and women.
What fuels you to be active and speak out?
Did you know that 1 in 5 Australian women have been sexually assaulted and/or threatened since age 15 and that 1 in 6 women were physically and/or sexually abused before the age of 15? (AIHF Feb 2018). When I tell people I am dedicated to ending the cycle of violence, people tell me my goal is too big. I should aim to reduce family and intimate partner violence by 10%, they say. Of the 56 women killed (#countingdeadwomen) this year, which five women’s lives should we have saved?
As you’re aware, we think you’re amazingly inspiring (and badass), and truly epitomise what it means to be an ‘Active Voice’. How would you personally define this title, and what does it mean to you?
Thanks, right back at ya! I believe every girl has the right to grow up free from violence. I believe every boy plays a part in making that a reality. I accept the challenge as a real life role model who has experienced violence first hand to help young women claim their right to be safe, believe in their own strength, and truly value their emotional, physical and mental wellbeing.
Being an active voice means moving beyond good intentions into strong hearted action!
What does your ideal world look like? Are we that far off from achieving it?
My ideal world is equal rights for girls and women. You don’t hit someone you think is your equal.
If we had gender equality we would put an end to domestic violence, female genital mutilation, child marriages and trafficking – not to mention these appalling stats from humanrights.gov.au
- Women and girls make up just over half (50.7 per cent) of the Australian population.
- While women comprise roughly 47 per cent of all employees in Australia,they take home on average $251.20 less than men each week (full-time adult ordinary earnings). The national gender “pay gap” is 15.3 per cent and it has remained stuck between 15 per cent and 19 per cent for the past two decades.
- Australian women account for 68% of primary carers for older people and people with disability.
- 95% of primary parental leave (outside of the public-sector) is taken by women and women spend almost three times as much time taking care of children each day, compared to men.
- In 2017, Australia was ranked 35th on a global index measuring gender equality, slipping from a high point of 15th in 2006. While Australia scores very highly in the area of educational attainment, there is still a lot of progress to be made in the areas of economic participation and opportunity and political empowerment.
We have made inroads with women in leadership and break through campaigns such as metoo but despite this progress, women and girls continue to experience inequality and discrimination in many areas of life. We have a lot of work to do!
For those who have a fire in their belly, but don’t know how to let it out, what would you suggest?
I begin workshops by asking students to release their voice and yell KYUP! at the top of their voices. We have been conditioned from childhood to play small. KYUP! means to shout and it’s a powerful way to show girls and women they have a voice, they can be heard and that they can have an impact by speaking up. Giving young girls permission to have their say and know they have a place in the world and that we believe in them is the key to empowering them to live their lives to the full and not be held back.
Give yourself a little love: what makes you feel truly rad?
Giving 100 percent to the Project and seeing the results when I visit a school for the second time. I can’t tell you how much I love hearing the kids stories. I also feel truly rad after a big sweaty martial arts workout. I’m learning weapons at the moment and I loving it!
Follow Mel: @kyupproject
Learn more about KYUP! Project here.