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  • Claire McFarlane

How No Question Is Off Limits For This Survivor

I wrote this piece for Marie Claire Magazine (South Africa) back in October 2016. I had just completed country 6/184. Footsteps To Inspire has certainly grown since then and I've learnt much more when it comes to how sexual violence is handled around the world. Yet, this piece still remains relevant and I want to share it with you. If you would like to read it on the Marie Claire website, I have added the link at the bottom of the page.

In the firing line: sharing my story with The Solomon Islands public prosecution & defence

‘Apart from DNA, what other proof do you have that you were raped?’ asked the prosecution lawyer (the person who is meant to protect me).

SMACK! It was like being slapped in the face. Even after seventeen years since my rape and relaying my story more times than I could count, a question like this still felt painful. The anger began boiling up inside of me. Hadn’t this woman listened to anything I had said about the brutal injuries sustained during the attack?

I could see out of the corner of my eye, the other defence and prosecution lawyers at the table were shaking their heads in dismay at the audacity of the question. Some were actually covering their mouths in shock.

Fortunately, I was able to find a sense of calm. Don’t take it as a personal attack, I thought to myself.

I turned to the woman, ’Why have you asked this question? What do you really want to know?’ She then explained the difficulties faced as a prosecution lawyer in sexual violence cases, especially when they don’t get to meet the victim before court and there is an ‘evidence poor’ argument.

I sympathised with all of the lawyers at the table. Of course it must be difficult presenting a case with little evidence and no understanding of the victim. However, asking that kind of question is totally out of line. It’s victim blaming and terribly damaging to an already vulnerable person. Questions like those often cause victims to lose complete trust in the system. As a survivor, I know how that question made me feel – helpless and scared. I advised the table to be open with their clients and explain why they are asking difficult questions. It is essential that a victim of sexual violence knows that the line of questioning has nothing to do with their credibility and is needed purely for making a case.

I was in the Solomon Islands as part of Footsteps To Inspire (previously know as ProjectBRA) – a campaign that will see me run 3 500km of beach across 230 countries to raise awareness and funds for rape survivors. This was the sixth country on the list.

Jumped into the ocean after the run - it was such a scorching hot day.

Thank you to these three amazing people who made it all possible.

The Solomon Islands government has recognised the need for services and better outcomes for survivors of family and sexual violence. It is a country with one of the highest rates of rape and incest in the world. It is also a country strongly bound by cultural practices. The fear of shame persists and dominates the dialogue. Silence reigns supreme. Yet, there is a small voice of hope and those are the people I met during my stay.

Having a ‘real-life’ survivor who is prepared to talk openly and in detail about their rape is rare. It’s even less common to have a survivor prepared to go into the firing line and answer any kind of question. If crisis centres, medical staff, police, criminal lawyers and communities directly understand the needs of survivors, they can start building on their skills and create safer environments for people to seek help or speak out.

Connecting with organisations and survivors in countries around the world is revealing hard-hitting truths about sexual violence. It affects so many women, men and children that it seems like it could be one of the largest epidemics of our time. Rape is in our homes, in our streets, in our schools, in our churches, in our workplaces, in our governments, on our sporting fields and in our communities. In many countries, rape is still used as a weapon of war to intimidate and control. Rape is about power and gains its strength through the silence of others. The wounds run deep.

Out of the countries I have visited so far, South Africa stands apart. It’s not about the prevalence of rape but rather the powerful voice of change flowing through the country at the moment. More and more rape survivors are coming forward to share their stories. They are prepared to stand in the firing line and answer those difficult questions. In the past year alone, movies are being made, books written, public campaigns aired on television, and magazines like Marie Claire are helping to raise awareness.

What South Africans are doing will set the tone for other countries around the world. I congratulate them on facing this daunting task and encourage them to keep raising that voice.

It takes great courage for a survivor to stand up and say ‘it happened to me’.


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