On a nice day in the middle of August 2016, Claire McFarlane, in her favorite running clothes together with a backpack, began her journey from Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, to Ela Beach. As usual, she was on the way to do her 16-kilometre barefoot beach run. While preparing for it, she wondered if anyone would join her today or if she had to run alone.

PapuaNewGuinea, 14 Sep 2016 - Photo by Stella Magazine

PapuaNewGuinea, 14 Sep 2016 – Photo by Stella Magazine

As soon as setting foot on the beach, Claire almost cried as she saw what was happening. More than 200 people, mainly local residents, at all ages and genders, were on the beach to run with her. They ran together, many sharing their own personal stories or wanting to support change for survivors of sexual violence.

A brutal morning in Paris

Claire McFarlane was born in South Africa then moved to Australia with her family when she was 15 years old. At the age of 19, she quit her medical course to travel to France with a dream to become an artist. She had to work at a bar in Paris to fund her entry into L’Ecole des Beaux Arts, the most reputable fine art school in France.

At 3 a.m. on July 18, 1999, Claire closed the bar with her colleagues and then, walked alone on the 100 metres path to take a taxi home. It was a path she had walked along almost everyday. But on that morning, it became a nightmare place when a man suddenly appeared, attacked her, beat her and raped her brutally.

“He had a gun, a knife and, ironically, a can of mace to make his punch stronger. He seemed more violent when I tried to resist him. At one point, I thought I was going to die when he strangled me to unconsciousness with his hard hands,” Claire recalled. “I kept telling myself I didn’t want to die, I didn’t want to die in Paris and tried to escape”.

Then, Claire remembered a self-defense course she had attended at high school in Australia. A survivor of violence had suggested other ways to escape dangerous situations. “I started talking to my attacker instead. I lied to him that I was terminally ill and I would be dead by the end of that year. At first, my attacker did not believe me and beat me more violently, but I kept talking and shared personal details of my life. This story did not help me to avoid being beaten or raped but absolutely it is what saved my life,” Claire retold. After that, she went to a hospital alone and had to wait for five hours before a doctor came to see her. The dream of becoming an artist in Paris of the young woman was shattered.

Concealing the trauma in nearly a decade

Claire had to stay in Paris for three months because of her injuries. She provided all information to the police but they were unable to apprehend her attacker. In 2000, she decided to move back to Australia to restart her life. She tried to make herself too busy to think about the nightmare in Paris. “I didn’t allow myself to look back and heal the trauma”, said Claire.

Claire McFarlane in Geneva - Photo by Nicolas Ansermet

Claire McFarlane in Geneva – Photo by Nicolas Ansermet

However, everything changed in June 2009. Three weeks prior to the 10 year “anniversary” of the rape, the French police called her and asked her to go to Paris within 48 hours as they had caught the suspected and there was a DNA match. Claire was working in Switzerland could be in Paris in time. “Looking through the one-way glass, I remembered him so clearly. Ten years have passed but I remember exactly his face. The nightmare of my rape returned and the world I had built in the past ten years began to fall apart. I hadn’t healed at all. I had not recovered at all. I had denied how the rape had affected my life”, Claire shared.

In France, sexual violence is not a crime against the state. If Claire wanted any justice she was forced to be involved in a legal battle, which lasted for six years and cost her more than AU$50,000. “France’s legal system isn’t the same as South Africa or other countries that I have known”, Claire explained, “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.” In November 2011, Claire’s rapist was eventually sentenced to 12 years in jail, but in June 2013, he was released after serving only a quarter of his sentence. Claire’s battle with the justice didn’t end their and she was forced into an appeal that lasted another 4 years. It took 16 years for her to find closure. “There is a lot of injustice in life, I know,” Claire said, “But our mission is to find a way to move forward and thrive, helping others along the way”.

Healing the trauma herself

Claire started to share her story four years ago. “The most wonderful thing is that I can help others to be brave to retell their stories. Many people, including men, women and children, told me their stories. Many disclosing for the very first time. And I realized that there are many levels of sexual violence, not only rape. No matter which country you live in, how old you are, what you believe in, what your gender is, whether you are rich or poor or in the middle, you may be likely a victim of sexual violence. Sexual violence has no boundaries and can hurt anyone”, Claire shared.

Claire Beach Running - Photo by Larisa Armstrong

Claire Beach Running – Photo by Larisa Armstrong

During the legal battle in Paris, Claire turned to running to help relieve her stress. She especially enjoyed beach running. She gradually realized that a barefoot beach run was a special physical activity that could help her relax, be stronger and be safer. She considered this kind of sport as a therapy to heal her trauma and she did it regularly.

In 2014, Claire shared her story with a news agency in Australia and it travelled so fast across the world. Her story motivated other victims of sexual violence to open up and Claire realized that she could do something to make positive change to help these people and inspire the to become brave survivors instead of victims.

“I want to call myself a survivor rather than a victim,” Claire said, “Being a Survivor is a turning point in recovery. It is when we start to gain back our strength. I considered myself a victim for a long time and it was not until I healed myself, I considered myself a survivor. And it is same to other survivors. They are not victims, they are brave survivors. Many people refer to me as going from victim, to survivor and now hero”.

New Zealand - Laughter, 20th Aug 2016 - Provided by Footsteps to Inspire

New Zealand – Laughter, 20th Aug 2016 – Provided by Footsteps to Inspire

FTI India Group, 20th Nov 2016 - Photo by Manan Dhuri

FTI India Group, 20th Nov 2016 – Photo by Manan Dhuri

Claire thought of creating a safe and open community to help to promote a peaceful dialogue around sexual violence, inspire change and help survivors overcome their trauma. Therefore, Footsteps to Inspire was established. Claire quit her job, sold all of her personal belongings to raise funds and has dedicated the next six years of her life to run 16 kilometres along 230 beaches worldwide. She runs barefoot wherever possible. The 16-kilometer distance symbolizes 16 years she had fought to survive.

Her first journey started in her birth country-South Africa, on July 18, 2016 and will end on July 18, 2022 in France. Up until now, Claire has run along 46 beaches in 45 countries, including New Zealand, India, Japan, Scotland, Namibia, Kenya, Malaysia, Singapore and Central America. The 45th country is Vietnam. “I visited Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and ran on Ho Tram Beach on December 2, 2018, which was a sunny and very windy day,” said Claire, “I chose Ho Chi Minh City because there are many organizations supporting women and children in Hanoi and very little in Ho Chi Minh. I find this strange because Ho Chi Minh is the largest economic city in Vietnam and therefore lots of people needing help. I thought I needed to come here to start a dialogue.”

Claire at Ho Tram beach, Vietnam, 2nd Dec 2018 - Provided by Footsteps to Inspire

Claire at Ho Tram beach, Vietnam, 2nd Dec 2018 – Provided by Footsteps to Inspire

In each country she visits, Claire tries to connect with services, non-governmental organizations and community groups to hold the talkings and share her stories to other survivors. She aims to help governments to understand the issues faced by survivors all over the world and give a hand to help them. “While there’s no doubt that countries like South Africa have very high numbers of rape cases, lots of other countries have the same rate of sexual violence, it is just that they go unreported or unseen” Claire has observed, “In the UK, half a million people are sexually violated every year; and in the US, someone is sexually assaulted every 90 seconds. 230 million children are sexually abused every year. It happens everywhere in the world, everyday and most rape cases are committed by someone known to the victim. Sadly laws in many countries are failing victims. Rape culture perpetuates silence and shame: victims tend to blame themselves or feel guilty about what’s happened. They need help and it is no longer a personal issue. This is about us, together we can make the world a better place”.

The article about Claire on Ho Chi Minh Sunday Women Magazine - Provided by the author

The article about Claire on Ho Chi Minh Sunday Women Magazine – Provided by the author

And this is what Claire hopes to do, to inspire you and I to be part of the change. That is why this strong woman started Footsteps To Inspire and will keep running more than 3,500 kilometres until she has reached survivors in every country of the world. Claire knows Footsteps To Inspire is leaving an impact and will one day help to peacefully end sexual violence. She has been pursuing her journey to connect, share and help the other survivors to overcome their dark days. She is only one-fifth of the way through, there are many more countries to go and not easy. Everyday she hears stories of horror and finds herself in dangerous places where she must keep safe. She is not discouraged because a movement is forming and she is supported by thousands of other people all over the world. She wants to keep sharing her story to break the silence and inspire others. We in no way can change the past – but we can impact change for a safer world.

CAO BAO VY

Short interview with Claire:

  • Hi Claire, how do you feel after completing a 16-kilometre barefoot run on Ho Tram Beach in Vietnam?

Great!            Great! It was a difficult run because of the wind and the rough sand. I really enjoyed the coconut water afterwards. Your country is beautiful and the people are very kind.

  •  Do you have a list of 230 countries you would visit? How do you plan for your trip?

Yes, I do have a list but the order is not set because I learnt at country 4 things would not go to plan. Two days before flying to country 4, they told me I was not welcome. I had to change my flights and move on to country 5. This is when I realised I would need to trust a lot in the unknown and go with the flow. I usually plan about 8 countries in advance. There is a lot of work and preparation before going into each country.

Claire and the author, Cao Bao Vy - Provided by the author

Claire and the author, Cao Bao Vy – Provided by the author

  • In some countries, you had to run alone. How did you feel?

Yes, I sometimes run alone. Not many countries – about 6 out of 45. My major worry on my own is my safety. Like Sunday at Ho Tram – it is a long, empty beach and I was worried someone could grab me. I try not to think about this and I have an escape plan in my head. I’m a strong swimmer and would just head out into the ocean to get away.

I’m actually an introvert (yes, I know it is hard to believe) so I enjoy my own company and don’t feel alone. Sometimes I feel sad when I run alone, especially when people say they will come and then don’t. For me this is a reflection of how societies feel about sexual violence…not that important.

  • How can you support the cost for your journey when you quit your job? How can we support your journey?

I sold everything I had to raise up funds to get started on the journey. These funds have now come to an end and I have created a crowd funding page for anyone who would like to see the work of Footsteps To Inspire continue and help me reach more countries. Every donations helps, big or small and I value deeply the support. Donate here: www.chuffed.org/project/footstepstoinspire. Follow the journey on social media @footstepstoinspire.

  • Thanks Claire and wish you full of energy for upcoming trips.