The 18th July 1999 turned the life of Claire McFarlane upside down. This Australian citizen had moved to Paris a year before to study fine arts in the French capital. The night of the dreadful event, Ms McFarlane had just closed the bar she regularly worked at and walked down a short street to the taxi stand, as she often did. But that night she didn’t make it to the taxi. A man intercepted her way and held her back. What followed was brutal violence, strangulation, rape and the taste of death. Ms McFarlane thought it was the end of her life. But it wasn’t. After hours of sexual abuse, she found herself in a street of Paris, severely injured.
Her dreams of becoming an artist in Paris were shattered. Shortly after the assault she left Paris, without knowing who did this to her since the police couldn’t get hold of the perpetrator. Ms McFarlane wanted to forget, forget what happened that horrible night of the 18th July of 1999. She desperately tried to push her memories aside, looking for a restart button for her life by returning to Australia. She became so busy that she didn’t have the time to think about the incident. She launched herself into graphic design, corporate communication, investment banking and international trade. She went on like that for almost ten years. “I was in denial,” she says today. “I didn’t allow my wounds to heal.”
Then three weeks before the ten years mark of the sexual assault, she gets a phone call from Paris. They had caught the man who raped her back in Paris. She was called to testify in court. She recognized the man immediately. “All the memories came flashing back, my world began to crumble,” she remembers. It was the most traumatic time of her life. After a long judiciary battle the man was finally sentenced to twelve years in prison. But soon after, hardly two years had passed, he got released from prison. McFarlane continued her judiciary battle with the French justice, spent a total of over $50,000, but her appeal was rejected. Again, she felt isolated. “Not once did the system treat me with compassion,” she says. “I was the victim, but in the process, I felt like the guilty party.”
Making a difference
It was at that time when she felt that all this happened for a bigger purpose. “One day, I realised that I should use my story to make a difference in the world,” she says. Ms McFarlane started talking openly about the sexual assault. Soon after she decided to begin a completely new chapter in her life. She gave up her job for the Australian government in the office of the World Trade Organisation in Geneva and sold everything she had. She took the decision to dedicate the next years of her life to the fight against sexual violence. She wanted to become the voice of women, men and children that had been sexually abused in their life.
Her main goal was to make people talk about their experiences with sexual violence. She cites a long row of shocking numbers, for instance the one showing that more women are affected by sexual abuse than from cancer. “It’s startling,” she says. “Sexual violence is the epidemic of our time, but still people don’t want to talk about it.” This doesn’t come as a big surprise to Ms McFarlane. She condemns an environment that doesn’t encourage victims to speak up, but to keep quiet. She denounces a “rape culture” that blames the victim, instead of giving support. “What we need is a global dialogue about sexual violence,” she says.
And that’s exactly what she tries to promote since the 18th July of 2016. Ms McFarlane used an unconventional way to spur the public debate. She went on a run. Exactly 17 years after the near-fatal event in Paris, she ran barefoot 16 kilometres along the coast in South Africa, in the country of her birth. It was the starting point for “Footsteps To Inspire”, a global beach run with the goal of raising awareness for sexual violence.
“Sometimes you need to tackle a problem from a completely different angle to resolve it,” she says. Ms McFarlane chose sport because almost everybody can relate to it. She describes it as something that brings communities together and has a uniting effect. It was also sports that helped Ms McFarlane through the darkest hours of her life, when she was soul-searching over what happened to her.
So she ran 16 kilometres along the South African beach with other people who supported the cause. And little by little she found a more purposeful role. She went to places like Japan, India, England, Mexico and Fiji. She has run in 33 countries and territories so far, all over the globe. Most recently, she ran her 16 kilometres in Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar. About every six days she moves over to a new place. Her goal is to run in every country and territory of the world, about 230 places total. This will take about five years of her lifetime and will end in France as a symbolic end of her story. It is a restless journey on behalf of the victims of sexual violence. Ms McFarlane wouldn’t state it like this though. She refuses to talk about victims outside of the legal term. For her, people who went through this are not victims, but survivors. The use of language is important, she says. “Calling someone a survivor empowers him or her to speak openly about what happened.”
With the run, Ms McFarlane wants to give the victims – the survivors – a safe place for an open conversation and understanding. “Many people spoke with me for the first time about a sexual assault they experienced,” she says. In the course of her global trip, she realized that it is not only women, but also men and children that are affected by sexual violence. And most of them knew their offender. She also realized that there are no stereotypes when it comes to sexual violence. Be it in terms of country, age, beliefs or sexual orientation, “sexual violence crosses all these boundaries,” Ms McFarlane says.
The 39 years old woman moves so quickly from one place to the other, there is not much time for a great deal of organization. Before the run she usually establishes contacts with local women groups or gets contacted by them, something that becomes increasingly common with the publicity the run receives. Then they would run together. McFarlane says, it’s very rare that she is alone on her run. She recalls El Salvador where several people had actually promised to join her on the run, but eventually didn’t show up. “Based on the text messages I received that day, every car in San Salvador must have broken down that morning,” she says and laughs. It was one of the few exceptions. Normally, she is joined by five to 200 people for the run.
Having an impact
Ms McFarlane didn’t know at the beginning if this campaign could really take off. It was at her fifth run in Papua-New Guinea where she felt that this could work out. That day, she went on the beach expecting a handful of people. But about 200 people were there, dressed up for the run. “I was so touched that I wanted to cry,” she says. In a country like Papua New-Guinea where sexual violence was so widespread, there were a lot of people who wanted to talk about it. “It was at that very moment that I realised that an insignificant rape survivor like me can make a difference in the world,” she says.
As fascinated as people are by Ms McFarlane’s endeavour, they keep asking her one question: Don’t you want to put this story finally behind you? Ms McFarlane says, she cannot do that. “The story is part of my personality,” she says. “I am not the same person anymore.” She doesn’t mean that in a negative way. The sexual assault sent her on a mission to help other victims of sexual violence to overcome their trauma. She wants them to feel stronger by talking about it, realizing that they are survivors, not victims. “I want to inspire hopes of those who still suffer in silence,” she says. “Imagine that there is a world without sexual violence, isn’t this worth fighting for?”
Two beach runs in Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar
On her trip around the globe, Claire McFarlane reached Tanzania at the end of October. She did two beach runs in the country, one in Dar es Salaam and, since it has its own jurisdiction, one in Zanzibar. As for Zanzibar, she had to run alone since she didn’t manage to engage with local organizations. “I get the sense that there is a strong resistance to discussing the issue of sexual violence openly even though many young girls and boys are being raped,” Ms McFarlane says about the experience she had in Zanzibar.
It was all different when she ran in Kigamboni at the beachside of Dar es Salaam, since she could count amongst others on the support from the Tanzania Widows Association. Its director Rose Sarwatt was immediately taken when she heard about Ms McFarlane’s story. “Her determination and her passion for the fight against sexual violence is very inspiring,” she says.
For Ms Sarwatt it is people like Ms McFarlane who can improve the way people talk about the issue. That’s why she and 20 other members of the association joined the run. Not all of them could keep up with the pace of Ms McFarlane, but this was obviously not what the event was all about. Ms Sarwatt was astounded when members of the widows organization came out with stories about sexual violence she had never heard about. This showed her clearly that people like Ms McFarlane can serve as important role models to give victims of gender based violence the courage to speak up.
“We must realize that anybody can be a victim of sexual violence,” Ms Sarwatt says. “Claire’s example shows it is nothing to be ashamed of.” As a direct consequence of the beach run, Ms Sarwatt will put up a program within the Tanzania Widows Association to stimulate the discussion about sexual violence. Ms Sarwatt sees especially in Tanzania a big need for that. “Rapes are considered a curse in this country,” she says. “Nobody wants to speak about it because they are ashamed and are in fear of losing their spouses,” she says. “But if we don’t talk about it, how can we end it?” she concludes.