Author and activist Winnie M Li was raped during a solo trip to Belfast. Here, she explains why she refuses to let that incident stop her from travelling independently.
I can still remember the first time I opened an atlas as a child, amazed at the notion of so many distant places beyond the suburban hometown where I lived. Growing up, I memorised the countries of Africa and Asia, and pored over the travel section of the newspaper each Sunday. When I reached university, I worked in my summers writing for a travel guidebook series. My first job involved backpacking around Germany for seven weeks on my own. I was 19, and I didn’t think being a woman made a difference.
On that trip, I encountered the odd creepy guy, but these scares seemed small in comparison to the sheer delight of independent travel. To be able to discover new landscapes, absorb new cultures, experience the world firsthand — and to do it all alone, relying entirely on my own wits. There was no greater thrill.
That first trip established a mode of travel — independent backpacking — which would become my greatest joy in life. I kept to a budget, and I aimed to travel “low to the ground”, meeting locals. Over the next 10 years, I moved to Europe from America, hiked long-distance trails on my own, visited friends volunteering in West Africa. The world was full of new places I could always discover.
And then one spring afternoon, when I was 29, all that changed. I was hiking in a park outside Belfast, following a recommendation in my Lonely Planet guidebook, and I was followed by a stranger. In a remote area of the park, that stranger violently attacked and raped me, leaving me with 39 separate injuries. During the attack, I was beaten and choked. Unable to breathe, I thought I might die on that trail, while attempting that solo hike.
I didn’t die.
I instead went through a long, difficult process of recovery, which is still ongoing, even 10 years later. But when I read about the death of Grace Millane — or of any woman traveling on her own — part of me thinks: “That could have been me.”
Did my 2008 rape stop me from traveling on my own again? It did, at first. The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was severe; even stepping into a familiar city park brought panic attacks. As the months went by, and I suffered from deepening depression and anxiety, I realised the one thing that previously brought me my greatest joy — traveling alone— was now the one thing that most triggered the PTSD.
My rapist had already taken so much from me, I refused to let him take that as well. It took time, and some uncomfortable attempts at solo travel (alone in a pension in France, I pushed a desk in front of my bedroom door before attempting to sleep). But a year and a half after my assault, after my rapist had been convicted in 2009, I set off on a three-month solo backpacking trip to Southeast Asia.
I told myself, if I really wanted to reclaim my life after the rape, I was going to travel independently again.
And I did. Even though I was more cautious than I’d been before, I climbed volcanoes, explored temples, swam through tropical waters— and through it all, I met wonderful people. Despite having met one perpetrator in my life, I realised there were so many other good people in the world.
And that’s the thing about violence and abuse. It only comes to us because we happen to cross paths with a perpetrator, not because of what we ourselves have done. I could have hiked that same trail in Belfast a day or an hour before, and nothing would have happened. Or I could have encountered a perpetrator at my university, or at work in London, or in my friend circle or family. Statistically, nine out of 10 rape victims are attacked by someone they know. Our own homes and workplaces are not necessarily any safer than the world “out there”.
So when people say Grace Millane’s murder happened because she was traveling alone, they are erasing the very essence of her as a human being. She was out there doing what she loved — learning, discovering the world, meeting new people — and she died because she crossed paths with a perpetrator. Nothing more, nothing less.
As women and girls, we have a right to move through the world unmolested and unharmed. So rather than expect us to stay in one place, our lives and our potential restricted, let’s instead question why perpetrators perpetrate. That’s how we can truly prevent these crimes from happening again. It’s why I decided to write my novel Dark Chapter partly from the imagined viewpoint of my rapist — and why I shifted my entire career to focus on the issue of sexual violence.
Because change will only happen if we have more women out there in the public realm — traveling, discovering, contributing our perspectives. I’ve been to streets in foreign countries peopled only by men and I’ve decided not to walk down them. If I’d seen a woman or two, I might have. It’s only by having more women out there that we can change the public space.
I’m now 40 and I’ve been to more than 65 countries, most of them solo. If I had stopped traveling after my rape, I never would have seen Croatia or the Philippines, the sun rise over the temples at Angkor Wat or set over the majestic reach of the Drakensberg Mountains. And that would have been a great loss.
It saddens me to think that there may be young women who will not be allowed to travel now, because of what happened to Grace Millane. We are not meant to live our lives in fear, shackled by the spectre of “what might happen”. Lots of things can happen, and the majority of them are good. So get out there, discover the world, live the life you want to lead. And realise that even if you travel solo, you’re not alone. There are so many of us women out there doing the same.
Winnie M Li is an author, activist and co-founder of the Clear Lines Festival. Her debut novel Dark Chapter, which won the Not The Booker Prize 2017, is out now in paperback (Legend Press, £8.99). She tweets @winniemli
Images: Winnie M Li