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The Elephant in the Room
Courtney was about 13 years old. She went to a supermarket after school, and a man started touching her, sexually, through her school uniform.
It was in the middle of the day, in the middle of a city, in the middle of a supermarket. Courtney is not her real name, but her story is. I've heard a lot of stories like hers.
I heard Courtney's story around 16 years ago. I'd been hired by a local girls' high school to teach a weekly sport class to a group of students, called: "Kickboxing for Self Defense."
During the course, I asked the girls to share self defense stories, so we went around the room, until we got to Courtney, who told us about her tragic trip to the supermarket.
"What did you do?" one of us asked.
We waited for her answer, but she said nothing.
We began to realize her silence was the answer. Because of fear, embarrassment or both, she had responded the way many would in the same situation. She froze.
As Courtney shared her story we all felt her helplessness and pain. We just sat there staring into space. All these years later, I can still feel the void in that room. This was my first experience of the shock and lasting scars that are caused by sexual assault.
From that moment, I realized there's much more to self-defense than a kick to the groin or a poke in the eye. I expanded my study beyond boxing and the martial arts, and read all I could about the prevention of violence and sexual assault, especially the early warning signs of manipulation and control that often precede an attack.
Violence, I discovered, leaves clues. I also studied books and courses on assertiveness, persuasion, psychology, law and bystander behavior. I wanted to learn as many proven, prevention strategies as I could.
One book that influenced me more than most was Gavin De Becker's The Gift of Fear, which convinced me that our innate qualities of intuition and awareness were more valuable than any black belt, could ever be. "Intuition," writes De Becker, "is the journey from A-Z without stopping at any other letter along the way."
I began speaking on these topics to women's groups and schools, and still do. I challenged some common self-defense myths. For example: "Don't yell help, yell fire," is an often recited self defense cliché, which about half the women in my talks have heard at one time or another before, and believe to be true. However, when I researched this strategy, I found no evidence to support it.
Yelling Fire is based on the notion that if we are being attacked, and nobody helps us, then we should trick bystanders into doing so - by saying there is a fire. However, this can confuse bystanders at a time you need to be clear. Better to yell Help! or Police! Studies show that people will help, as long as they know what's going on. Tell it like it is.
Another myth I challenge is the belief that a woman can never win against a man, so there's no use trying. In fact, there are many ways a woman can prevail. Predators and bullies are weak. They are looking for a victim, not a fight. A woman, even half the size and strength of a man, can still be smarter, mentally stronger, and in many ways more powerful than an attacker. I held a talk once called: You're Stronger than You Think
Avoidance is, of course, the best strategy. To emphasize this, at the end of self defense courses to school groups, I would award achievement certificates with a quote printed on them, from the ancient Chinese warrior Sun Tzu: "To win without fighting is best."
But the Elephant in the Room question remains: Why should women and girls have to win at all?
Shouldn't winning and losing be left to sports, politics and business, instead of plotting about how to survive attacks from men, many of whom are friends or partners?
Inevitably people ask me why. Why am I, especially as a man, passionate about preventing violence against women? "Why do you care?" they ask. "Is it personal?"
Every time I see a media story about a woman being raped, stalked or assaulted, it does feel personal. Assaults on women are assaults on freedom, trust and all humanity. They are assaults on the female spirit, and the human spirit. So yes, it's personal.
Recently in my home country, Australia, Jill Meagher, a 29-year-old Irish woman, was walking from a bar to her home, a short distance away. She never made it. She was last seen on CCTV talking to man in a hoodie, outside a store. Her body was discovered days later in a ditch by a road.
Several days later, this prompted a sight I have never seen in Australia - tens of thousands of people marching in the streets of Melbourne against violence. It took a high profile rape and murder to make people protest. However violence happens daily in Australia, mostly behind doors and mostly never reported. Violence is not met with nearly enough outrage, penalties or action. Good people need to do more. Men need to do more.
It may be different in other countries, but stopping violence against women is not something many men are protesting in the streets about here in Australia. I'm yet to hear: "Hey Guys, instead of going to the pub this weekend, let's get together and do something about preventing violence against women. After all, it affects our sisters, partners, wives and children."
When people discover I have started several women's' anti violence projects, some find it weird. I find it weird that they find it weird.
I also find it weird that billions of women on the planet need to take daily steps to avoid harm from members of her own species.
I find it weird that every second of every day somewhere in the world a woman is getting raped, bashed, beaten or abused.
I find it weird that in South Africa, one woman is raped, on average, every 27 seconds.
I find it weird that one in eight American women will be raped in their lives, along with a quarter of young women at college.
I find it weird that in a country with a population of less than 23 million, 1.2 million Australian women have experienced sexual violence or the threat of it, since the age of 15.
I don't like bullies. This probably began in my childhood, because I grew up around two parents, (and five older brothers and sisters), who also didn't like bullies.
Both my parents were lawyers, and stood up for the underdog. They fought for justice and equality, in public and in private. My father became the first President of the state Anti Discrimination Board, and my mother worked on an appeals committee for people who were wronged by a government department. They both stood up for what they believed, and often that meant the oppressed, the victimized and the less fortunate. I also studied law - and a part of me wants to use that knowledge for good, my like my parents did.
Despite being faced with immense personal challenges, my mother inspired me with her grace and courage. She showed me, by the way she lived her life, what female fighting spirit is. I'm sure I inherited some of her spirit. Like my mother, I don't like fighting or violence. However, fighting has played a part in my life.
Around the time I was teaching self-defense to schools, I began competing in full contact, bare-knuckle karate. I'd been a long time student of martial arts, and to become complete as a martial artist it was important to me that I experienced real competition. It didn't take long to discover that boxing truism: Everyone has a plan, until they get hit.
During tournaments, I was kicked in the head, knocked out stone cold with a knee to the jaw and had my shins and feet battered so badly I couldn't walk ten steps to put out the trash. Fun indeed.
As brutal as full contact martial arts is, it is still a sport, with fit, evenly matched opponents, and many rules to protect the competitors. In violence against women, there are no rules - just bullies, abuse of power and mismatches. It's the only combat arena where a heavyweight takes on a featherweight. It would never happen in a ring, but these mismatches occur behind closed doors, and often in public, every minute of every day.
Like Courtney was that day in the supermarket, when it comes to dealing with violence, so much of society is frozen by fear, embarrassment or confusion - that nothing happens. But where Courtney didn't have a choice, society does. The choice is there for all of us. Every single time abuse is noticed - be it physical, sexual, verbal, emotional or psychological, we have the choice to speak up and help others do the same.
Both men and women can do more. Obviously men can start by not assaulting or raping women. And women can learn to recognize the early signs of abuse, and then act on it. Put out the fire early, while it's still small. Speaking up is hard to do, but the sooner the safer. Violence against women can only stop when enough good people refuse to stand by and watch it happen.
In November 2011 I flew from Sydney to South Africa to launch an anti violence project. I chose that country after I learned of the appalling levels of violence. The goal was to raise awareness and confidence, but instead of collecting signatures, the mission was to collect a punch into a soft pad from women. The punch is not a violent punch (it's into a pad) - it's a symbol of defiance, solidarity and action. It's a jab for justice.
I visited the townships in South Africa where the women told me that 90% of wives and partners were being abused. We talked to the women in these townships, and started conversations. A local photographer took stills and video for me, and uploaded them to a video blog. This year I visited Asia, including Singapore, Indonesian fishing islands and also the capital, Jakarta, where some Moslem women "donated punches." Next is Nepal and India.
One in 3 women will be the victims of violence - one billion - so I chose that number. By the time I collect a billion punches, I could well be 300 years old. So now women (and men) can donate a 'virtual punch', by sending in a photo to our Facebook page. The photo has one palm and one fist to visually say 'Stop the Violence.' We have had photos sent by people from Cuba, Canada, Germany, France and Australia, with new ones coming in from USA, Brazil, Israel and countries in Africa.
Imagine if we could collect a billion or even a million such photos. It would make a powerful global statement that the world has had enough of violence toward women, that a billion victims is absurd, outrageous and an assault on us all. And it could say, in powerful images, that the time has come for the world to change.
Although qualified as a lawyer, Patrick Moore decided he would rather empower others, than live a legal life. He founded Boxout in 1994, which he ran for 18 years combining fitness, boxing and empowerment. 70% of his students were women. Now Patrick runs Female Fighting Spirit seminars and blends teaching the physical moves of martial arts with the psychology of self defense, to help prevent violence. In 2011 he launched an anti violence project in Africa, Australia and Asia where women speak up against violence by throwing a 'jab for justice' - an empowerment punch into a soft pad. People can also send a stop the violence photo of themselves to make a visual statement of defiance, strength and solidarity with one palm (stop) and one fist (violence) to www.facebook.com/onebillionpunches or email it to email@example.com. He lives in Sydney, Australia.