In Australia, 1 in 3 women experience domestic violence in their lives. It happens to all types of women, of all ages, in a range of socio-economic areas. No woman ever deserves to suffer violence, and there is no predicting it — it can happen to anyone.

For Sydney based actor Gemma Willing, domestic violence was the reality of her early twenties. A bright, intelligent young woman, she never imagined finding herself trapped in a relationship dominated by violence. But she did.

Gemma’s story is one of hardship and hurdles, but ultimately, one of community, overcoming taboos, and triumphing over a situation that, for a long time, she had no control over.

Sadly, Gemma’s first negative experience with violence was at just 12 years of age, when her friend’s father sexually assaulted her. Surviving sexual assault at such a young age was incredibly difficult for Gemma. Then, when in her early 20’s she was repeatedly emotionally, physically and psychologically abused by her now ex-boyfriend.

Gemma carried these experiences with her for a long time. Her natural reaction was to completely close off emotionally from all men, feeling she couldn’t trust them and that they weren’t worth her time. She felt helpless, out of control, and very much like a victim.

“I decided enough was enough,” says Gemma.

Her desire to recover spurred her to reach out to her family, friends and current boyfriend, and open up about her experiences. They were there to talk and, importantly, listen. Gemma also went to see a counsellor, which helped immensely.

“Communicating is so important. Talking about the issue is vital.”

After talking openly with her support network Gemma got to a point where she didn’t see every man as possibly violent. And, most importantly, Gemma began to see herself not as a victim, but as a survivor.

“Nobody ever deserves to be treated in such a horrific manner. I know what it is to be helpless and victimised. But I feel empowered by it now: I’ve taken it in my stride, I’m stronger and know myself better now because of it.”

She now uses her strength and experience to make a positive difference in any way she can. For Gemma, that means talking:

“The more I speak with women the more I find out just how common violence and sexual assault are. I want women to know that they are not alone.”

Gemma’s gentle and kind nature, and positive attitude are testament to her strength and perseverance. By talking openly about her own experiences, she hopes to help others who have experienced violence, and contribute to social change by breaking down the stigma surrounding sexual and domestic violence.

“My biggest hope is that women can feel completely supported and safe — that they are empowered women without that fear deep down that something could happen to them. I hope women will have the ability to speak and act freely.”