Reclaiming the joys and freedoms of solo walking

Winnie M Li is an activist, speaker, and the author of two novels

On an April afternoon in 2008, I went for a walk on the outskirts of Belfast, and my life changed forever. I was 29 and an experienced solo traveller. I'd hiked in the Bavarian Alps while writing for a travel guidebook, explored rock formations at sunset in Cappadocia, Turkey, and savoured the secluded beaches of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. So I thought nothing of going for a solitary walk in a Belfast city park.  

But you cannot always predict who you will come across on the trail. That day I was followed by a 15-year-old boy to a remote area of the park, where he violently attacked and raped me. Hours later, I had 39 separate injuries and news of my rape was all over the local radio.  


Dealing with trauma 

In the weeks and months after my assault, when my life was changed beyond recognition by newfound fear and post-traumatic stress disorder, I wondered if l had brought this upon myself, by hiking on my own as a woman. And did that mean I should never have ventured out into the world in search of adventure?  

Post-traumatic fear is a shapeless, all-consuming emotion. If you feed it, it continues to grow, until it crowds out the joy in your life. The assault left me with panic attacks and agoraphobia, which threatened to overwhelm me when I set foot in any outdoor space. Seeing the light fall through tree branches a certain way could trigger a memory of being choked, of fearing I would die. But the rational part of me - aided by a good therapist - tried to reason: just because this happened to me once didn't mean it would happen again.  


Feeling unsafe as a woman 

And it was impossible to ignore the simple injustice of what had happened: if I were a man, I would never have been attacked and raped by that teenage boy. As a woman, I already had so much taken away from me by my perpetrator. Was I going to let him take away my ability to enjoy nature, too?  

Research indicates that women are twice as likely as men to feel unsafe alone in the outdoors. Another study showed that news reports of violent crimes significantly impact the walking habits of locals, especially women, resulting in a drop in overall physical activity.  

So, as much as we don't want it to, the fear gets to us. It limits our own exercise and our time in the outdoors. That, too, is a form of injustice.  


Reclaiming a love of nature 

I didn't want to let that injustice determine the rest of my life. So gradually I tried to reclaim my love of nature. I sat for 10 minutes alone on a park bench one afternoon, and it was a tentative baby step. On the one-year anniversary of my rape, I asked two friends to walk with me around a south London park in silence, to observe the spring flowers pushing up through the earth. It was a hopeful reminder that things can grow anew.  

Emboldened by this, I went for more small walks. I kept pushing the boundaries of my anxiety. After my rapist was sentenced to eight years in prison, I took a flight to Croatia on my own. Half a year later, I set off on a three-month backpacking trip through Southeast Asia. Through it all, I met friendly, helpful people, witnessed glorious sunsets, trekked through jungles and around volcanoes. I would not have experienced any of those pleasures if I had stayed at home, imprisoned by my own fear.  

Statistically, women are far more likely to be assaulted by someone they know than by a stranger out in the open. So if there is danger, I would rather be out there facing it, enjoying what our world has to offer.  

Every year, I make sure to go for a solitary walk in nature on the anniversary of my rape. It's a way of reminding myself I have survived, I have come this far, and there is still so much beauty I can witness.  


Watch Winnie’s TED talk on reframing how we think about sexual violence: Winnie M Li: Reframing the way we think about sexual violence | TED Talk 


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