18 years ago, Claire McFarlane was brutally raped and left for dead on the streets of Paris.
What followed for the 39-year-old was a long journey to seek justice that only came to an end in October 2015, almost a decade later, after a DNA match identified the attacker.
However, her dreams of pursuing an arts course in France were shattered and she moved back to Australia. McFarlane is of South African and Australian origin. The ordeal inspired her to start an initiative to fight sexual violence.
“When someone rapes you, they take away your dignity and self-love. I learnt to be happy with myself and respect myself again,” she says.
On July 18, 2016, McFarlane began her journey of running 16 kilometres around a beach in every country of the world to raise awareness and support for survivors of sexual violence. Her initiative ‘Footsteps to Inspire’ is about peaceful dialogue and a positive vision of change.
“What forced me to talk about the rape was that they caught him 10 years later and so I had to face it again through the legal system that required me to go through all the details.
“It was not a good experience going through the details but it broke my silence. I’ve since realised that through sharing my own story of survival, I can inspire and help others,” she says during the interview.
She sold everything in her possession to raise enough money to get started on the journey and is currently doing this completely alone, with hope to make a small difference in the world.
“It is very rare to get a rape victim to talk openly about their experience, also because it involves a healing process which is too much for them. But for me, I have really moved through it and have had a chance to heal and so I feel comfortable answering any questions,” she says.
McFarlane travels to different countries every seven to ten days and the global beach run will take five years to complete. In each country, she links with local communities, organisations, government institutions and sexual violence victims to share stories and understand what the issues, complexities and hopes are around sexual violence.
“Some join me as I run 16 kilometres barefoot along a stretch of beach. I will continue doing this until I have run in every country,” she says.
Why sport for dialogue?
In every country that McFarlane goes to, she runs on the shores of a waterbody where well-wishers are free to join her in the run.
“I’ve chosen to use a very different medium to talk about sexual violence that is adventure, travel and sport. Sport unites us and often brings people together to stand for something they believe in. It is also empowering and important for the healing process,” she says.
According to her, water also takes her out of the city to rural areas where ‘the issues are strongest.’
“I find running a very relaxed way to talk in a non-confrontational way and it’s been a very nice space to start a dialogue and find men, women and children involved and giving others the courage,” she adds.
Running in Gisenyi, Rwanda
On October 8, this year, McFarlane run along the shores of Lake Kivu. Rwanda is her 29th country overall and second in East Africa after Kenya.
She was in the company of 10 other Rwandans, who she reached out to through social media platforms and shared her story and they had an open dialogue about sexual violence in Rwanda.
Her visit in Gisenyi also involved speaking to different organisations, visiting hospitals and the Isange One Stop Centre.
“That the government has the agenda to eliminate sexual violence, and that the advocacy groups involve men in the gender dialogue and also legal advocacy groups left me inspired. Many victims of sexual violence in Rwanda have written to me and told me their stories,” she says of the experience.
Currently in Uganda, she hopes to complete her East African run in the next few weeks.
‘Footsteps to Inspire’ has left a lasting impact for survivors of sexual violence and McFarlane’s efforts have started receiving wide spread recognition.
She recently spoke at TEDx USVI for the second time in July this year. Elle Magazine also nominated her as one of the 50 incredible women shaping the continent of Africa, and the ‘International Institute for Peace through Tourism’ named her their second ‘Ambassador for Peace’.
The words ‘survivor’ and ‘victim’ are frequently used in her conversations.
“I choose to use victim when I refer to the legal system, which refers to victim as someone who has experienced sexual violence. But when an individual moves out of their victim stage and feels like they want to move forward and talk about what has happened, they change their dynamics and become the survivor. I think it’s important when someone who experiences sexual violence recognises that,” she explains.
She adds, “It is understandable that women are more victimised but it is also important to note that boys are also vulnerable and if they do not get help, then they can become perpetrators when they are adults. By getting help they become positive contributors to society.
“My actual long term goal is to keep speaking and I want to move to schools and universities and share this experience, self-defence and how to cope afterwards.”
As she concludes her story, McFarlane tells of how she has chosen to make her tragic experience have a positive impact on her life.
“What happened to me at the time was traumatic, but it isn’t now. It’s now something that is positive and I think that it has changed me in the sense that I don’t let my trauma cause me suffering. It’s making me stronger and it has allowed me do this journey and I think being able to help and inspire people everywhere in the world is a gift that I can only give,” she says.
A look at sexual violence in Rwanda
Elvis Mbebe, the president of Initiatives For Peace and Human Rights (IPeace), says that listening to McFarlane‘s story, it’s easy to note how access to justice is key in the healing process of a survivor of sexual violence.
“For her, it was more than just access to justice but also the justice system memory. Without an effective legal system, the victim may never obtain justice,” he says.
A statistical report by the National Public Prosecution Authority reveals that 313 cases of rape were registered between 2013 and 2014. All of them were handled in court and 112 people were convicted of rape.
Mbebe adds that much as a lot has been done in Rwanda in terms of institutional and legal framework for the fight against sexual violence, the most challenging factor remains the opening up by survivors who suffered sexual violence in family settings.
“This is difficult as many people in Rwandan society still think whenever there is a case of sexual violence; the victim has a share of responsibility. This is coupled with the rejection or stigma that survivors fear in case they open up and denounce what they faced,” he says.
Another report released in 2013 by Rwanda Men’s Resource Centre (RWAMREC) on Gender-Based Violence revealed that GBV reporting is still low, with only 10 per cent of all sexual abuse victims coming out to report.
Disturbing is also the number of GBV victims (all forms considered) who did nothing after at 38 per cent. Among the reasons for this include the feeling that nothing will be done after reporting (36.7 per cent), the fear of stigma (18.7 per cent) and dependence of victims on perpetrators (16.9 per cent).
The report also cited other causes as being limited knowledge of law and rights (23.9 per cent), alcoholism (23.5 per cent), and persistence of negative cultural beliefs on gender (21.4 per cent). At the structural level, patriarchy is seen as the main cause of GBV in Rwanda.
In what ways can sexual violence be eliminated?
Society has made victims feel like it is their fault. Eliminating sexual violence begins with people acknowledging that it cuts across both genders and age groups. So many victims are hurting in silence because of societal stereotypes that it is demeaning for them to speak out on sexual abuse. Victims are most likely to be psychologically affected, hence, ending up being the oppressors themselves. To stop the cycle, people need to be encouraged to take the matters to court.
Phillip Karuhanga, IT specialist
Awareness to understand the roots of violence in the context of culture, gender and other social aspects, should be improved so that societies can learn to help the victims rather than judge them. Sexual violence can happen to anyone, and could leave a long lasting negative impact on them. One way to prevent this dreadful vice is to empower people with self-defense mechanisms to avoid being attacked.
Men need to be part of the solution by teaching everyone about the myths and realities of sexual violence. Everyone should also take responsibility for their own sexuality and not allow it to be defined by their partner, the media, or anyone else.
Annet Agaba, accountant
Gender-based violence is still a problem in our society and we need holistic and multi-disciplinary approaches to address it. We need to commit our everyday lives to combat it and we need more innovations to curb it.
Fidele Rutayisire, Chairperson RWAMREC