In 1999, Joburg-born Claire McFarlane was a 21-year-old working part-time in a bar to fund her entry into L’Ecole des Beaux Arts, where she hoped to study fine art.
One night, she left her workplace at 3am to take a taxi home – which was nothing out of the ordinary. Sadly, she never made it to the taxi. The man who grabbed and violently attacked her made sure of that.
“I knew what was going to happen. Stealing my bag wasn’t his intention,” McFarlane recalls. “I fought hard to get away, but it didn’t help, because the attack became more violent.”
Then, she remembered a self-defence course she’d attended at high school in Australia. A rape survivor had suggested other ways to escape a dangerous situation.
“I started talking to him instead. I lied: I told him I was terminally ill and I was dying. Not only did it change the dynamic… I think that’s what ultimately saved my life.”
Fast forward to 2014, and McFarlane finally shared the story of her brutal rape in a newspaper article. When she did, she realised she could have a positive impact on the lives of other survivors.
Rape isn’t often discussed, because it tends to make people feel uncomfortable. But the fact is, more and more women are travelling alone – and some of them are runners. It’s important they know how to stay safe, and where to go for help and what their rights are if something bad does happen.
Due to the severity of her injuries, McFarlane had to stay in Paris for a further three months, her dream of studying fine art shattered in the aftermath of her harrowing ordeal.
In an attempt to piece her life back together, she returned home to Australia, and filled every waking moment with something to do. She convinced herself everything was okay.
But in 2009 the past came back to haunt her. Her attacker had reoffended and a DNA match had been found. McFarlane was living in Europe at the time and was called upon to return to Paris and identify him in a police line-up.
Standing face-to-face with the man, she remembered him so clearly – and realised she hadn’t healed at all.
“France’s legal system isn’t the same as South Africa’s,” McFarlane explains. “The victim is a civil party in criminal proceedings, as opposed to a witness for the state. That means you have to find your own lawyer; and if you’re a foreigner, you have to pay for the lawyer.”
McFarlane’s legal battle cost her AU$50 000 (around R530 000) and was a long, drawn-out process. Her case dragged painfully through the French justice system for six years, culminating 16 years after the attack itself. And in the end, her attacker only served three and a half years of his sentence.
Sadly, she is now to afraid to return to the city where she came of age, where the artist in her blossomed.
During the legal process, McFarlane used running as a restorative and empowering tool – in particular, she found running on the beach a positive experience. And as she grew physically stronger, she felt safer.
She also felt strong enough to share her story. “I wanted people to know what had happened to me in France, and how the justice system works there. The expectation is that France is a forward-thinking country, and that therefore, victims are treated well; but in my case, that couldn’t have been further from the truth.”
McFarlane’s story ran in an Australian newspaper in 2014, and then spread to Africa, the UK and the US. It gave other survivors the courage to break the silence. They reached out to her, eager to share their own stories of sexual violence, whether through rape, assault or child abuse.
McFarlane noticed that some of the taboos and shame that surround rape had shifted – and perhaps, she thought, these survivors would now be more likely to follow through with the criminal process. Inspired, she wondered how she might keep the conversation going.
“Sexual violence and rape is a subject that’s difficult both to talk about and to listen to; but it’s a huge, silent epidemic that affects one in four women, and one in six men. Just talking about it wasn’t going to work. I had to find another way…”
McFarlane thought about the role beach running had played in her own healing, and how she could use it as an example to others that there is life after trauma. In addition, sport has a way of uniting people – so why not use it to bring women together to talk about their experiences?
As part of her initiative, Footsteps to Inspire, McFarlane aims to run 16km of beach in every coastal country of the world, in support of rape survivors: that’s 3 500km, 230-plus beaches, barefoot where possible, in under four years. She will be the first person – and woman – to do it.
McFarlane began her journey in South Africa on 18 July 2016, and has so far run on 30 beaches in 29 countries, including New Zealand, India, Japan, Scotland Namibia and Kenya. She’s planning a symbolic end to her journey, in France, on 18 July 2020.
“I got food poisoning the night before I was supposed to run in Taiwan and I thought it would be the hardest of the bunch,” she recalls. “It was a surfer beach – if you can imagine a Chinese surf town! The sand was beautiful, warm, soft and black, and I was running with lovely people. And I ran 16km, as if charged with all the energy in the world.
“I’m a real example that it’s possible to run in remote areas alone, but safety is key. I make sure I know people on the ground, and ask questions about where is safe, and where isn’t – there are some places where you just can’t run alone,in which case I ask the locals to accompany me.”
A learning curve
Besides running in each country she visits and sharing her story with survivors, McFarlane connects with NGOs, services and community groups.
She aims to help governments to understand the issues faced by survivors all over the world.
“While there’s no doubt South Africa has one of the highest number of rape cases in the world, lots of other countries have the same rate of sexual violence, McFarlane has observed. “In the UK, half a million people are sexually violated every year; and in the US, someone is assaulted every 90 seconds.
“Rape culture perpetuates silence and shame: victims tend to blame themselves or feel guilty about what’s happened, and they don’t want to talk about it. In some countries, women are actually punished for opening up.”
Adding to that, from her own personal experience McFarlane knows all too well that sometimes the law fails victims completely. It’snot all bad. In some countries, McFarlane has observed positive steps being taken to ensure survivors are supported.
“Malaysia is a country that surprised me: they have one of the best one-stop crisis centres I have ever seen. Taiwan is equally progressive.
“Over the next 10 years, South Africa plans to roll out sexual violence courts across the country. Professionals will be trained to apply the law properly, so that victims will have a better outcome. I hope that society will stop blaming the victim, and instead ask why someone would decide to harm another person.”
McFarlane has been invited to speak at TEDx twice, and some of the countries and communities she has visited have pledged to hold an annual beach run to raise even more awareness about sexual violence.
“This journey is about acknowledging the issues,” McFarlane says. “Once we know what’s really happening, we can find a solution.”
This article was originally featured on www.runnersworld.co.za
Image credits: Supplied