WISE self defence classes in Ballarat are teaching people of all abilities how to protect and empower themselves

Close bond: WISE Self Defence's Fiona Skene and Faith Sims. Ms Sims said her life has been revitalised by the empowerment received through doing self defence training and self-improvement. Picture: Luka Kauzlaric
Close bond: WISE Self Defence's Fiona Skene and Faith Sims. Ms Sims said her life has been revitalised by the empowerment received through doing self defence training and self-improvement. Picture: Luka Kauzlaric

Self-defence classes are now teaching women more than just moves, as Ballarat services try to stop domestic violence before it happens. 

Recent high profile cases of sexual assault and violence against women have incited conversations around who should carry the burden of responsibility – the victim, the perpetrator or society broadly – when an incident happens in public. 

In the hours after 22-year-old comedian Eurydice Dixon’s body was found in a North Carlton park, a clumsily-worded police statement told Melburnians to “take responsibility for your own safety” and carry a phone. 

Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton later told radio station 3AW though women should be able to walk around safely, “it's not a question of rights, it's a question of risk and people evaluating risk."

And while Ballarat resident Faith Sim is confident she could use the self-defence she’s studied for two years with WISE Self Defence, it’s the accompanying self-empowerment that has helped her recover from traumatic sexual assaults. 

At the age of 18, Ms Sim was raped by someone she didn’t know – a backpacker – making her feel "broken, damaged, not worthy”.  

A year later, another devastating incident followed. While out at a public venue, she bumped into a former friend from her hometown.

“He asked me how I was going, it was friendly. I felt safe, I knew this guy since I was little. And then when I went to toilet, he actually pushed me into the toilet and forced himself upon me.”

A close friend encouraged Ms Sim to “keep it quiet”. 

I hated myself and I hurt myself multiple times, because I felt so much hurt. It still hurts … I didn’t want anyone else to feel the hurt that I felt, because it ran so deep.

Faith Sims, assault survivor

She was young and “terrified”, and had internalised society’s warped view that she could have somehow avoided the first experience, if she’d only done something different. 

“During that time I’d completely lost respect for myself, because I believed the lie, that it was my fault because I was the one that got drunk, I was the one wearing the short dress,” Ms Sim said. 

The Centre Against Sexual Assault said in 2012, 17 percent of women and 4 per cent of men had reported experiencing a sexual assault since the age of 15. 

But after meeting self-defence expert Fiona Skene, who runs Wise Self Defence classes as ‘half psychological, half physical’, Ms Sim is now working alongside her to teach others how to rewrite their stories. 

WISE Self Defence's Fiona Skene and Faith Sims, who now works with the organisation. Picture: Luka Kauzlaric

WISE Self Defence's Fiona Skene and Faith Sims, who now works with the organisation. Picture: Luka Kauzlaric

After "years of living a certain way”, the change of mindset was difficult. Instead of standing tall, she was used to hunching her shoulders in, eyes down, arms held protectively over her body, as if waiting for a blow to come. 

“I would pretty much collapse into my self. Fiona would say, ‘stand strong’, and for me, that was completely unnatural,” Ms Sim said.

“After teaching other women and men the same things, you’re still learning every day. It’s not going to flip a switch overnight.”

That’s why I have such a passion and drive for it now, because it made me believe I could use what happened to me for good.

Faith Sims

Mrs Skene said “sometimes the self-defence that I do is teaching people how to heal”, because “in the healing is the power.”

A former Australian martial arts champion, Geelong-based Fiona Skene was motivated to learn to defend herself from the age of 17, when a cousin suffered horrific injuries as a result of domestic violence. 

“I thought she was in a fantastic relationship, and then I found out her husband had committed domestic violence on her and fractured her skull,” she said. 

“Something within me said, ‘I need to learn self-defence, because I’ll never know who or what could happen to me.’”

Also working in the justice system with both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, Mrs Skene’s classes are not only for women. Classes are appropriate and adaptable to men, people with disabilities and the elderly.

“I always advertise it’s for anyone of any ability ... At one of the classes in schools I met a boy with cerebral palsy who was fairly uncoordinated in his left side. So I taught him to defend himself by using his lack of ability in one side to create massive ability in the other.

WISE Self Defence's Fiona Skene

“When you say, ‘hit the bag strong’, what you’ll see is that they’ll either give it a go or hold back,” she said. 

“So I’ll actually ask them what they’re telling themselves … Is it an empowered or unempowered story?”

“We miss the fact there are so many men who are sexually assaulted or are victims of intimidation. We stereotype in that that it happens out on the street, but it happens at work and at home.”

In Ballarat, organisations like Women’s Health Grampians (WHG) are attempting to address the societal drivers of sexual assault, by creating environments without discrimination and with processes in place to discuss and appropriately deal with domestic violence. 

WHG’s Communities of Respect and Equality (CoRE) Alliance has almost 100 member organisations across local government, business, health and sport. 

Women’s Health Grampians chief executive office Marianne Hendron said while self-defence and measures like pepper spray have their uses, they don’t get to the crux of the issue. 

Women's Health Grampians chief executive officer Marianne Hendron.

Women's Health Grampians chief executive officer Marianne Hendron.

“They’re part of a tool kit that can have a place in certain contexts, but they’re not going to prevent violence and address violence as a significant social problem,” she said.

“Violence against women has at its core disrespect. Where we see societies where women are more equal generally - in the work place and their lives - violence and disrespect is lessened.”

Ms Hendron said she’d seen the landscape improve, with people “having conversations they wouldn’t be having four years ago about gender roles, and that men do have responsibility to influence other men on this.”

The conversation around burden of responsibility in sexual assaults – and those whispers of ‘​What were they wearing? Did they drink? Maybe they led them on?’ – are unlikely to disappear.

Mrs Skene said while assault “is against the law, should never happen, and it’s the perpetrator’s complete fault”, if self-defence “saves lives”, then it’s worth people taking a proactive approach to safety. 

“What I’m saying here is that they are always going to be perpetrators, and though it is not our responsibility [as women] to learn self defence, it is a very good choice for us to do it,” she said.

A WISE Self Defence class will be held at the Sebastopol Neighbourhood Centre on July 23.

“Women may not be considered as physically strong as men, but we have just as much power, if we give ourselves the opportunity to,” Mrs Sims said. 

To contact the Centre for Sexual Assault, call 5320 3933 or free call 24 hours 1800 806 292.