Claire McFarlane believes running can help people deal with trauma. In Sihanoukville last weekend, she was leading by example.
The victim of a brutal sexual assault in Paris in 1999, the South African-born Australian founded Project Beach Run for Awareness (Project BRA) in July this year.
She has set out to run over 3,000 kilometres of beach in 184 countries to raise awareness about sexual violence. Along the way, she’s also speaking to other survivors. Cambodia is the 11th country on her journey.
“Some people are very confronted by the fact that I can so openly talk about rape and about my experience,” McFarlane says. “But there is no shame in this. We need to stop blaming the victim and look at the perpetrator and ask why they did it.”
This openness contrasts sharply with the culture of silence in Cambodia. Here, the UN estimates that one in five men between the ages of 18 and 49 has committed rape. An emphasis on “saving face” is pervasive.
Many rape victims continue to worry about being stigmatised or shamed, McFarlane says. “Often, survivors [in Cambodia] won’t directly share their experience. There will be tears and acknowledgment, but they don’t go into detail,” she explains.
It took McFarlane over a decade to realise that talking can lead to healing, and she’s set out to spread that message to other victims.
During her time in the Kingdom, McFarlane has met with NGOs focused on gender-based violence and sexual assault. In neighbouring Thailand, she couldn’t find a single organisation working exclusively on rape, so she was surprised to find groups in Cambodia addressing the issue from multiple angles.
The organisation First Step, for example, works exclusively with men and boys who are victims of sexual violence.
“It’s wonderful that there is an organisation here working with male victims,” McFarlane says. “Half the countries I’ve been to think it’s impossible for men and boys to be raped. In India, for example, it’s impossible for men to be raped according to the law.”
Meanwhile, Hagar International and She Rescue work specifically with women and children. And human rights group Licadho helps victims seek legal support.
One of the biggest strengths of Cambodia’s NGO sector is a strong referral system that allows organisations to direct victims to institutions with more specialised services, McFarlane says.
Counselling, however, is a much-needed service that is often missing. Psychological support is available in shelters like the Cambodia Women’s Crisis Centre, but victims are usually left without it once they leave a safe house.
And courts can be a scary place for victims. The system still struggles to adapt to children’s needs, and rape in marriage hasn’t been outlawed.
A 2015 Licadho report found “serious and systemic flaws in the prosecution of rape cases resulting in a disturbingly low number of convictions”.
Still, McFarlane says the situation for victims – here and beyond – improves only as people get comfortable talking about sexual assault.
“It’s an epidemic. Women are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted as they are to get cancer,” she says. “The only way to stop it is to start addressing it.”
For more information, check out Project BRA on Facebook.