First exposed to violence against women as a 15-year-old Jennifer Savage has travelled a diverse path on her way to helping launch the Campaspe Family Violence Action Group and continue her crusade to create a better and safer world for women. CHARMAYNE ALLISON reports
NOBODY HAS HAD to belt Jennifer Savage for her to fear the extent of violence against women.
Although as a 15-year-old who knew even then someone had to do something, she came perilously close to a serious, alcohol and rage driven attack.
It happened while the then schoolgirl was on a volunteer trip and one night could hear a man screaming in the room next door, then the sounds of a young woman whimpering quietly.
Jennifer recalled the hairs standing up on the back of her neck as the tirade actually grew worse.
She couldn’t just sit by and listen. “I’ve got to stop him,” she said to a boy her age sitting in the room with her.
She watched the blood drain from his face as he clutched her arm.
“You’re not going anywhere,” he said, frozen to his seat.
Jen knew there were several people in the room next door — and yet she couldn’t hear any other voices, just the endless volley of screams.
“Look, I’m going in there,” she said firmly. “I promise I won’t get involved unless no one’s doing anything.”
Before he could protest, Jen shook off her companion and strode into the room next door — and into a scene from her worst nightmare.
A girl was curled in a ball on the floor, quivering as a man stood over her, shouting.
There were 10 people scattered around the room — every one of them looking at the floor, at the wall — anywhere besides the girl on the floor in front of them.
Jen only hesitated for a moment, running forward to wedge herself between the two, yelling fiercely at the man to leave the girl alone.
He immediately turned his rage on her, shouting back.
At the moment he threatened to harm Jen, the group’s leader rushed in, grabbing the young man by the arm and marching him out of the room — before his threats turned into actions.
Jen’s first brush with violence against women would spark a lifelong mission to see an end to family violence.
Culminating with the formation of the Campaspe Family Violence Action Group — a community group dedicated to reducing the alarming rates of family violence within the shire.
But that landmark achievement was still years down the track.
Jen was born and raised in Melbourne.
After school, she’d catch the tram to the family business — Dobsons, a fourth-generation uniform shop.
Time and again, her parents would wait for Jen to arrive home from school, only to have her not appear.
After far too many frantic phone calls, they gradually learnt where to find her — out the back of the shop, buried among the boxes, quietly sorting stock.
Eventually they made a deal with her — if she did her homework, she could help in the shop.
“We all loved the business. Our dad involved us all in running it. He’d come home from work and would, even when we were kids, ask our advice,” Jen said.
“At the time, I didn’t realise how much it shaped me. But when I was at uni I realised I had a deep-set knowledge of economics and market forces — because I had lived with them.”
It’s hard to believe now as Jen speaks with rapid energy — but she was a painfully shy little girl.
A perfectionist at heart, Jen’s deep-set fear of messing up kept her from saying a word. People often thought she was arrogant because she wouldn’t talk to them.
In actual fact, she was just really scared.
But when she was in her late teens, something life-changing happened. Jen made a mistake so big, embarrassed herself so completely — but the sky didn’t fall in.
As she says now (a frequent Jen-ism): “The earth kept spinning, life went on”.
From there, she began emerging from her shell.
While Jen would never recommend being painfully shy for 16 years, she said those years of silence later helped her as a leader.
And although she may not have spoken much, she definitely listened (and learnt).
“As a child who hated mistakes, I’d learn from watching others make them instead,” she said.
“There are plenty of mistakes we as chief executives can make being innovative and trialling new ideas — let’s not repeat the mistakes others have made; there are too many new ones to explore.”
While Jen may have initially had trouble voicing her opinions, she’d never been indecisive.
And once her confidence started to grow, people began to take notice of her leadership abilities.
Finishing school at 17, she was offered a position coaching rowing in England and a year later she was in Tasmania working on a fisheries degree for three years.
After which she researched fish species, writing for scientific journals and providing fish breeding training (while completing her Masters and kicking off a PhD).
Then in 2001, she started working on a fish farm in Pakenham.
Where she met her husband, Nic (albeit in less-than-ideal circumstances).
“I turned on the tap one day to fill up a fish tank and totally forgot about it,” she said.
“Nic’s timber factory was next door. He’d just made a whole load of Christmas stock and laid it out on the floor.
“Of course, the fish tank overflowed and flooded his factory, destroying his Christmas stock,” she said.
“But the fish were fine.”
Feeling horribly guilty, Jen lay low for a couple of hours until her boss pushed her to go next door and help tidy Nic’s shed.
“I spent the day cleaning up the shed with Nic. He was fantastic, he told me not to worry about it,” she said.
“The joke now is that I actually doubled his sales because my boss paid to replace the timber and he still got to sell it all,” she laughed.
It was a strange first meeting, but sparked a romance that eventually brought the couple to a farm in Kyabram, where they still live — now with sons Tom, 9, and Will, 12 — plus an assortment of cattle, sheep and, of course, fish.
It was at this time Jen’s evident leadership abilities began to blossom.
And her resume grew longer — and longer.
She was one of two Victorians selected for the Rural Women’s Award from the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.
She then completed a business diploma (governance) at the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
As the fish farm was largely automated, she joined the local preschool management committee, managing three preschools.
It was at this time, in 2012, when a near-tragedy proved the final straw for this human campaigner.
Her son Will, then six, was on the bus home from school when it collided with a petrol tanker.
Jen and Tom were standing at the bus stop, watching in horror as the two vehicles crashed.
Miraculously, everyone survived and, eventually, healed — but it plunged Jen into the depths of what would be diagnosed as PTSD.
“The stress of the crash sparked it,” she said. “It was caused by my deep-set desire to be perfect. I wasn’t angry at the drivers, I was frustrated at myself for all the things I didn’t do after the crash, or could have done better.
“I’ve taken all this time to acknowledge what I did do. I called triple zero, I called the families, I used fabric to make bandages. But I still thought; why didn’t I sit with the kids and try to calm them down?”
After the crash, Jen threw herself into her work, endeavouring to keep her mind off what had happened. They were some of her most productive times.
But 12 months later she realised it was just a band-aid solution and went to see a psychologist. From there, she began to heal.
“I just want people to know nobody’s perfect,” she said.
“Go for help. I acknowledge how hard it is. It’s terrifying. I was so scared people would see me walking into the psych’s office. But you just need to make that first step.”
Around this time, Jen left the preschool committee, becoming co-ordinator at Girgarre Neighbourhood House.
And, as if that wasn’t enough, she also joined the GMW water services committee and the Goulburn Broken Catchment Management Authority SIRPPIC committee, spending time as deputy chair of both groups.
Despite this impressive resume, people still doubted Jen’s leadership abilities.
“I was told by people it was a shame I didn’t have the ability to be a strong leader. I sat on that for a long time,” she said.
“People often told me I needed to harden up and be more like a man — it wasn’t malicious, they just wanted me to proceed in my career. But people need to understand women manage differently.”
In 2016, she was offered the Sampson Leadership Scholarship to attend the Fairley Leadership program in Shepparton.
“That year was invaluable. Through Fairley I realised people lead differently — and those different styles work,” she said.
During the course, Jen applied for the position of chief executive at the Kyabram Community and Learning Centre (KCLC) — the position she currently holds.
Then, finally, in 2017, Jen co-founded the Campaspe Family Violence Action Group.
The group aimed to set up a family violence support hub in Campaspe and increase access to accommodation within the shire.
While also doing whatever it could to alter the deep-rooted mindsets which lead to family violence situations.
“I haven’t personally experienced domestic violence, but I have seen it in communities, spoken to too many victims,” she said.
While Jen acknowledged men can also be in abusive relationships, she said violence against women was the primary issue.
“Women are dying; women are ending up with severe brain damage. And it’s not that we don’t care about the abuse of men, but let’s stop dying first and then go from there,” she said.
“We also need to stop what gets people to the point they’re abusing. We need to stop the language, stop the behaviour, and promote equality. So it’s as foreign to our kids as smoking or not wearing a seatbelt is now.
“True change may take a generation.
“But we want to make sure we do not let what we cannot change, stop us from changing what we can.”