Can sport change how we talk about rape?
“There were so many people who were killed and massacred, but still I wish I was dead. I wouldn’t live with this burden.”
The words spoken by a victim of the Kosovo war, a woman raped and tortured over and over by soldiers as part of a war strategy to punish and ethnic cleanse.
This is not the first time I have heard these words spoken, nor have they come from just the mouths of women. No matter what country I go to, the rhetoric is the same: ‘I would rather die than be raped’.
The 19th of June marked the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, a global day to honor survivors and take steps to end this brutal crime. Women, men and children are sexually violated during conflict. It can be used as an intimidation tactic or for ethnic cleansing. Sexual violence in conflict is happening this very moment in many parts of the world, including Europe. Will it ever end? Possibly not given how war creates extreme abuse of power, and this is why it is so important to bring a voice to those suffering in silence.
Looking in from the outside, it may seem difficult to comprehend what rape in conflict means. Currently, very few governments acknowledge that this issue exists, leaving hundreds of victims unable to access health services, support or financial assistance. Helplessly, they carry the burden of deep trauma, stigmatization, injury and possibly even a child born from the rape. The expectation is that the victim must silence their burden and live on as if nothing has happened. How can they? How can any sexual violence survivor be expected to deny their trauma and move on with their life without any restoration?
You might be feeling uncomfortable right now. I understand, rape is a confronting issue that confuses many of us, sparks debate, creates taboo and mostly finds fault in the victim. Who wants to talk about an issue like this?
Sadly, sexual violence is not going away and its prevalence reaches far beyond conflict. This very instant, as you are reading my words, hundreds of our children are being sexually abused, 1 in 4 women are experiencing rape, and 1 in 6 men are being sexually violated. How do I know this? Because in the past 3 years, I have met many of these victims, I have heard their stories, felt their pain and seen with my very own eyes what little support is available, if any at all.
I understand all too well their wounds because I have my own. In 1999, living in Paris as a foreign student, I was violently attacked, raped and left for dead. What followed was a long struggle through the French justice system that only came to an end 16 years later. I faced victim blaming, secondary trauma and was brutalized by a system that was meant to protect me. In 2014, I decided to speak out about my ordeal. What came next was extraordinary.
Sexual violence survivors from around the world began writing to me – women, men and children – many sharing their stories for the very first time. I was stunned. I had no idea that sharing my story would inspire so many survivors to break their silence. Somehow I had to keep using my story to help others.
But how could I take this uncomfortable issue of rape, and make it comfortable to talk about? Through sport.
Sport unites us. It creates movements and transform lives. Sports is empowering and can be an essential part of the healing process. More and more, the world is starting to value the importance of using sport to tackle social issues. In 2000, during his address at the first Laureus Sports Awards, Nelson Mandela proclaimed that ‘Sport has the power to change the world’.
I have a tendency to agree with him.
On 18 July 2016, I set out on an expedition to run 16 kilometres in every country of the world with the vision to peacefully end sexual violence. It is called Footsteps To Inspire.
I have already run in 50 countries across most regions of the world. There is still 180 more to go.
Nothing about Footsteps To Inspire is easy. Everyday I hear stories of horror, and sometimes stories of hope. What keeps me going is the knowledge that I’m changing lives. And the most remarkable outcome of all, people want to talk about sexual violence. Hundreds of women, men and children have joined me for a Footsteps To Inspire run and many have asked if it can become an annual event.
This is the future of Footsteps To Inspire, to become an annual global run where people in countries around the world can run together for this common goal of raising awareness, honoring survivors and finding solutions to one day peacefully end sexual violence.
Until then, I must find a way to keep going.
I never wanted money to be the reason for not starting Footsteps To Inspire and dedicated all of my personal resources to making the project a reality. These funds have come to an end and the organization is now fundraising to be able to reach the remaining 180 countries.
In 2018, I registered as an NGO and Footsteps To Inspire has become the lead project of Movement To Inspire – an inclusive, global organisation using sport as a way to peacefully end sexual violence.
The vision is big but like any athlete would know, dreaming big is part of the journey.
Join me for a run, support the organization and let’s keep using sport to change how we talk about rape forever!