INT. # 6 Inside the Heart of Debi Steven
Rich here, what can I say? Except this is one of my favourite people on this planet. I love her, she’s pure awesome and probably my biggest inspiration to keep forging on. What this woman does daily, I haven’t even scratched the surface of, my sister from another set of parents; Debi Steven.
My name is Debi Steven and I am the founder of a UK-based self-defence company, Premier Self-Defence Ltd; two karate businesses, FSKA London and Pee Wee Karate; and a UK Registered Charity, Action Breaks Silence.
I started my karate training in South Africa in 1989 at the age of 19 and, within eight years, was selected for the South African All Styles Karate team and travelled to Tokyo, Japan to compete at the Women’s World All Styles Championships. In addition, in 1998, I worked as a bodyguard to the main actors in the Quentin Tarantino movie: ‘Texas Blood Money’ which was shot in Cape Town, before moving to the UK sixteen years ago.
Having been raped at 11 years old, however, I quickly realized that traditional martial arts were not the answer for women – or men – needing to defend themselves in the real world. In recognition of this, I completed instructors’ courses across the world, including training in Canada with Richard Dimitri, becoming the first UK affiliate of Senshido; David Turton of the International Self Defence Federation; and many others.
I believe every woman has the right to live her life free from fear of sexual and gender based violence. In my empowerment workshops I share my belief with the participants that all women are BORN to defend themselves.
In 2013, driven especially by the growing incidence of violence against women in India, I founded Action Breaks Silence, firstly as a not-for-profit company, to offer my training FREE of charge to women and girls at risk of sexual or gender-based violence in South Asia and Africa. In October 2014, Action Breaks Silence became a fully registered UK charity and we have already taught 15,000 women and girls in India.
In March 2015, I was the recipient of an “International Women of Change” award at the Indonesian Film Festival where “Power”, a documentary about my life and work by journalist and film-maker Jeanny Gering, was given a Platinum award. I am a frequent speaker at events and conferences and am a regular contributor to BBC Radio, including an interview about her life on the BBC’s World Service, and other media.
Q 1. What significant change(s) on a human level, have you gone through over the last decade in direct relation to your work and how has it, if any, changed the way in which you teach/instruct?
I feel that I have done almost a full circle over the last 10 years which has profoundly affected the way I teach.
Instead of believing that physical self-defence skills and techniques are enough to defend yourself, I realised that the vital ingredient is possessing the mental strength to be able to respond physically when necessary. Unless you are empowered and can recognise and unlock that strength, it is almost irrelevant what physical skills you have. For that reason, I have re-crafted both the name and content of my workshops as “Empowerment through self-defence”.
The most challenging part of teaching now is, therefore, for me to be able to bring really nice woman and men to the position where they are OK about ripping someone’s eye out or causing physical pain. The ability to pass on embracing rage and identifying what triggers can be put in place to spark that rage to the participants is a key part of my work that simply wasn’t there 10 years ago.
So many instructors are still focused on all the ‘stranger’ stuff. Both on a physical and awareness level. The reality is very different and my workshops now reflect that.
Everything is life evolves and one needs to show that in our teachings.
Internationally 1 in 3 women will suffer violence by an intimate partner not by a stranger. These are men that we often have put our trust in, manipulative and very destructive men. Men in our homes!
Then there was the realisation for me which was so hard! The part women play in COVERING up this violence, ignoring this violence. Mothers who force their daughters into silence. Mothers and other women who insist that rape is part of marriage. These mothers and woman that are reinforcing the myths of sexual and gender based violence and not smashing those myths apart.
Q 2. Is there a particular incident/occurrence/situation you recall having directly experienced/been involved in that has deeply & emotionally touched and/or altered you and your perceptions of the world in general?
The first and obvious major incident that has shaped my life was when I was raped at 11 years old by someone that I knew and trusted. This damage was compounded over the next 16 years by telling nobody what had happened to me, which was how I learnt just how destructive keeping silent can be.
When I finally broke that silence at 27 years old, my next lesson was feeling the shame that society can impose on women/children that suffer sexual and gender based violence. It is no coincidence, therefore, that we chose the name “Action Breaks Silence” for the charity I have set up to create a world free from the fear of sexual and gender-based violence.
Throughout my life, every survivor that I have talked to has deeply and emotionally touched me and the work I am doing now in India and South Africa leaves me raw because of the scale of abuse and seeing just how disempowered woman are. The sense of male entitlement is overwhelming.
The CEO of Action Breaks Silence, Stephanie Highett, once said to me ”Debi, how is it that women, who make up 50% of the world’s population, can be so disrespected?”. I constantly ask my male friends “Are you one of the good guys?” and when they answer“Yes” I ask them if they truly understand what being a ‘good guy means and how hard they are prepared to fight. Are they prepared to stand actively and firmly next to us as we fight this global war against women?
Q 3. Have you ever thought of quitting the game altogether? If yes, why? And if you were to at this stage in your life (today) do something entirely different, what would it be?
I have never thought about quitting but one active choice I have made is to detach myself from most of the self-defence fraternity. In my experience, I have found many instructors are fuelled almost entirely by ego or greed and that makes me mad.
If I were to change career, however, I would definitely do something to do with animal rescue. I have one cute dog at the moment and I would definitely increase that. I would love to have at least five dogs.
Q 4. Do you feel you were proverbially ‘born’ to do what you do, that this was your calling?
Yes, I believe this is my calling and I definitely believe there are certain elements and forces driving my work that are outside my control. I feel I’m on a very fast moving train and I’m clinging on.
For example, as someone who had hated the city for years, if someone told me five years ago that I would initially focus my work in South Africa in Johannesburg, I would have laughed. But this year, Action Breaks Silence will be working in Soweto for the United Nations’ 16 days of Activism campaign to create awareness and stop violence against women.
I spent time there now and really changed my views on this incredible city.
Is there perhaps another thing you wish you would have done instead, or believe you are just as good at and should have perhaps explored instead?
I would have loved to have worked in the Sexual Crimes Unit of a police force and become a profiler but I grew up in South Africa and joining the police in South Africa in the eighties was not an option for me. It was run by the apartheid government and I would never have given a minute of my time to them.
Q 5. How has your work affected your personal life in regards to the relationships with those outside our field/profession? (Professional, personal, familial, romantic, etc.)
Since setting up Action Breaks Silence, I have obviously spent a lot of time travelling which has definitely affected the amount of time I can devote to my partner, friends and family at home in London. Fortunately, they are all extremely supportive (so far, anyway!) and I owe them all a lot of thanks, especially my mother and father who have had to look after my dog – now known as their ‘grand-dog’ – on a number of my trips!
It’s hard sometimes to keep the darkness I see all over the world at bay. I’m consumed by what I do and that make me a very poor dinner guest. I don’t often have stories soaked in sunshine to share.
Q 6. Do you have any regrets at all? If yes, which is the one that haunts you the most?
I do believe that my life would have been impacted positively if I had received counselling after my rape or not kept quiet for the 16 years after it. In my workshops, I describe the effect of sexual violence as the same as shattering a beautiful vase. You can put it back together, but it will never again be exactly the same. That is definitely the case for me.
One of my goals is that Action Breaks Silence opens survivor centres where women and girls are able to get free counselling.
Each time I a woman or girls talks to me about their rape/abuse in India I feel so helpless as I cannot offer them that help at the moment. Each time I have to walk away from them it truly devastates me.
Q 7. What are your proudest moments/achievements in both your private and professional lives?
- Founding Action Breaks Silence, a UK registered Charity. We are committed to creating a world free from fear of sexual and gender-based violence. We have already taught our Empowerment through Self-Defence workshop to over 15,000 women and girls in India absolutely FREE of charge over the last 18 months. We are expanding to Johannesburg, South Africa later this year. Most participants have been from very disadvantaged communities.
- This year I was awarded an ‘International Woman of Change” award at a festival in Indonesia where a documentary on my work in India called “Power” by a young journalist, Jeanny Gering also won a Platinum award. Since then “Power” has won the “Best Short Documentary” Award’ at the Artemis Film Festival in the USA.
Q 8. How do your friends and family outside the industry/self defense/martial arts world view what you do for a living? What are your thoughts and feelings about it?
There have been a number of occasions when my friends and family have been worried about my safety, especially over the last two or three years when I have increasingly been working in communities where many men oppose my teaching for any number of cultural or religious reasons.
I always listen to what they have to say and try to be as cautious as possible but, at this stage, nothing will stop me doing what I genuinely believe I was born to do, whatever the potential danger. I don’t take this lightly, however. I would never do anything to endanger the people I love or my team
Q 9. How often do you find yourself going against what you preach and teach, after all, we’re all human, we all have our ‘bad days’ and the like; and how often are you aware of it enough in the present moment to catch yourself do you think?
On my last trip to India at a school in a very poor village, I witnessed a teacher at that school beating a number of children. I heard the sound of the stick first and then as I turned witness the beatings.
It was a really complex situation as this workshop had been organised by a third party that had build up a relationship with this school over a number of years. The local men would not challenge the man with the stick, the headmaster of the school also would not stop it.
I got involved and all I have ever learnt and teach about verbal diffusion went out the window.
I challenged him, I threaten him, I publicly told the girls in the workshop, whilst this man watched me teach, that it is the weakest most pathetic man that beats women and children.
I could not stand by when our motto is ACTION BREAKS SILENCE.
Q 10. What now? Where do you go from here? Where do you see yourself in 10, 20 years both on a personal and professional level?
Our plans for Action Breaks Silence are huge and I will be really excited to work with my amazing team of trustees, our teams of local instructors and the CEO to make those come to fruition. If we do that, I am certain we will make a truly meaningful and lasting impact on the communities in which we have worked. If I can do that for the next 20 years, that will take me neatly through to retirement, when I will kick off my shoes and live happily ever after with my partner and our dogs, punctuated by travelling and exploring the world while I am still able to do so.
My UK self-defence company is called Premier Self-Defence and, as well as teaching at schools and organisations throughout the UK, we also hold courses for the general public. The details of all our services are on my website, www.premierself-defence.co.uk.
If you are interested in the work of Action Breaks Silence, please do visit our website – www.actionbreakssilence.org. We are in desperate need of funding and support so, if you share our passion for creating a better world for women & girls and want to get involved in any way, please contact us via [email protected]