Trailblazing the continent on foot, raising awareness of child sex abuse

CBeebies actor Matthew McVarish, himself the victim of an abusive uncle, is taking a 16,000km trek to raise awareness of the problem

Scottish actor Matthew McVarish has decided to take a very long walk – a 16,000km walk in fact.

He walks up to 50km each day, sometimes through sun and often through rain, but always with the same mission: to raise awareness about child sex abuse.

Between this past May and February 2015, McVarish will visit 31 European capitals as part of a project called ‘Road to Change’, which endeavours to prevent sex abuse cases by encouraging past victims to speak out. As part of his journey, McVarish stopped in Copenhagen last week after walking from Berlin.

A star of the BBC children’s programme ‘Me Too!’, McVarish also works as the European ambassador for the non-profit organisation Stop the Silence: Stop Child Sexual Abuse. He said he views his trip around Europe as one of the responsibilities of the position.

“I decided to visit all of the European capitals, but I decided to walk because that way people would be more interested,” he explained. “If I had just flown here, I don’t think the cause would get as much attention.”

Connected to the cause

For McVarish, the project has a particularly personal significance. The youngest of seven siblings, McVarish and three of his older brothers were all sexually abused by their uncle as children.

“As quite often happens, we didn’t talk about it,” he said. “About five years ago, three of my brothers were very depressed and struggling. I was looking for some help, and I found Stop the Silence.”

Inspired by the organisation, McVarish went on to write a play, ‘To Kill a Kelpie’, about two brothers discussing their experiences with sex abuse. The production motivated his own brothers to speak out themselves, and the four later pressed charges against their uncle, who is now in prison.

“I think when my brothers saw the misery they were experiencing on stage, they realised how important it was that we do something,” he said.

McVarish pointed out, however, that his intentions weren’t to drag out the past for him or for anyone he meets on the road. Instead, he hopes to help prevent cases of abuse in the future by encouraging victims to speak up.

“I’ve spoken to thousands of survivors on my walk, and I ask them if they’ve ever talked to the police. Many say that they don’t feel strong enough to stand in the same courtroom as the person who abused them,” he said.

“I completely understand that, because it’s very difficult,” he went on. “But I ask them: ‘Do you think you’re stronger as an adult than the child that same person might abuse tonight, or tomorrow, or next week?’ It’s not about seeking revenge or compensation, it’s about child protection right now.”

Stopping the silence

In each city he visits, McVarish meets with public officials to encourage policy change, particularly in regards to the respective country’s statute of limitations for reporting cases of child sex abuse. While no statute exists in McVarish’s home country, it is currently set at ten years in Denmark and varies throughout Europe.

“There will always be cases just outside of the bracket, no matter the amount of time,” McVarish said. “And the person who abused them could still be out walking the streets.”

But the main focus of his walk, McVarish pointed out, is to facilitate open discussions about abuse in communities where the topic is seldom addressed.

“There are an estimated 100 million abuse survivors in Europe, many of them in rural areas. So for their local paper to have a guy on the front page talking about sex abuse not as a scandal, but just trying to deal with it, can be very valuable.”

“People in smaller countries often find it more difficult to report because everyone in the community knows each other,” he went on. “Nobody wants to speak out against their neighbour.”

On the road

After a week-long stay, McVarish departed Copenhagen on the morning of Saturday, September 7 and headed towards Helsingør, accompanied for a short leg by the British ambassador, Vivien Life. He will next stop in Stockholm on September 28.

While issues like weather or a low mobile battery have occasionally made the trip uncomfortable, the road has been relatively smooth thus far.

“I was walking through a national park recently and walked right past a wild boar,” he chuckled. “Otherwise, I’ve seen lots of snakes, but none were a threat, and I’ve had no trouble with people.”

“Once a day while I’ve been walking through Denmark, someone would stop me on the highway and offer to give me a lift, but I always said: ‘No thanks’. They’d ask where I was headed and I’d say: ‘Copenhagen’. That inspired some strange looks.”