Scottish TV star walks ‘circumference of moon’ to stop child sexual abuse
Determinedly dressed in his trademark kilt despite an autumnal nip in the air Matthew McVarish, known for his role on the popular BBC2 Cbeebies hit Me Too! series, told The Portugal News of the reasoning and goals behind the campaign.
Alluding to the smash movie Forrest Gump, he explained: “We have this situation where we culturally understand that if someone does something bizarre we will immediately ask why they’re doing it. So if you want to raise awareness about something no one wants to talk about, you have to do something extraordinary.”
Matthew began the 20-month ‘Road To Change – Walk to Stop the Silence: Stop Child Sexual Abuse’ campaign last year, having set off from London on 31 May.
The walk is designed to “raise awareness and catalyze change to prevent the epidemic of child sexual abuse” and will take the actor and his message through every major city in Europe, “impacting more than 100,000,000 people.”
He has already passed through cities including Paris, Stockholm, Tallinn, Warsaw, Athens and Zagreb and, after his Lisbon leg, has four more cities to pass through before completing his route.
“I’ve now walked further than the circumference of the moon, that’s why you’re talking to me right now, and people who read this will get to learn about child sexual abuse because I’ve walked here, so that’s how I achieve my goal to raise awareness.”
The objective of his walk, McVarish elaborates, is threefold: “to raise awareness, to create political change, and to encourage collaboration between NGOs”.
It is also important for two other key reasons: to stop child abuse by being more aware as a society, and to encourage victims to talk about it, “for their own recovery as well as to identify dangerous individuals.”
“It’s for healing and prevention and all from the simple act of talking about it.”
Invoking recent statistics, he explains: “Every fifth child in Europe will be sexually abused before the age of 18, and that doesn’t have to happen but it will unless we change as a society, so we need to learn more about this and be more aware.”
Addressing Road to Change’s political agenda, McVarish explains it aims more specifically to abolish the “outdated” Statute of Limitations law found in most European countries.
The Statute of Limitations are laws passed by a legislative body in common law systems to restrict the maximum time after an event that legal proceedings may be initiated.
“I’ve literally met victims in France, Luxembourg and Denmark who have gone to the police to tell them about being sexually abused as a child and the police have said that the crime has expired, which means the person who abused them is still in contact with children and the police can’t arrest them. And this happens over and over. The trauma caused by the abuse doesn’t expire.”
The cause is a very personal one to the actor, who was himself sexually abused as a child by an uncle, who was jailed in 2010.
“It took me 12 years to be able to come forward and tell the police. People often say with my case, why did it take me 12 years to report it? If the crime is so bad, why didn’t you come forward sooner? And I always say it’s because the crime is so bad that it took me 12 years to be psychologically ready to go to the police. And that’s after eight years of therapy, because I come from a country where there is access to therapy. A lot of children in Europe don’t have access to those kinds of services.”
While the UK and Cyprus do not exercise a Statute of Limitations, Portugal does – loosely, up to a maximum of 15 years – but the victims of child sexual abuse are an exception to the general rule in this country and have until the age of 23 to come forward and report crimes.
Portugal is also one of just eight countries that took on the materials of a campaign launched by the Council of Europe under the Lanzarote Convention – named the ‘One-in-Five Campaign’ – despite the convention having been signed by all 47 Member States and ratified in 34 countries.
The ‘One-in-Five’ campaign aims to combat sexual violence against children and means that, among other things, Portugal should have access to materials such as books to equip children, their families or carers and society at large with the knowledge and tools to prevent and report sexual violence against children, thereby raising awareness of its extent.
According to information from the campaign’s website, “available data suggests that about 1 in 5 children in Europe are victims of some form of sexual violence.
“It is estimated that in 70 percent to 85 percent of cases, the abuser is somebody the child knows and trusts.”
Meanwhile, it seems Matthew’s gruelling pan-European walk is paying off.
Hungary recently abolished its Statute of Limitations thanks to the largely donation-funded Road to Change, and Slovakia looks set to follow suit.
“We were in Budapest in February and I spoke at the International Day of Victims in front of the Secretary of State, and I just said that, if my uncle had have abused me in this country [Hungary] he wouldn’t have been arrested because you only give victims up until the age of 23 to go to the police, and I was 25.
“And while we were in Slovakia we went to the Slovakian government and within days a petition had been launched to abolish the Statute of Limitations.”
During his journey through Portugal, on Thursday last week McVarish met in Lisbon with British Ambassador to Portugal Kirsty Hayes as well as Socialist (PS) MP Paulo Pisco, to discuss the initiative and its objectives.
Ambassador Hayes told The Portugal News that she thought Matthew’s journey has “clearly been an extraordinary” one, but “sadly to highlight a very ordinary crime that affects so many children and young people and which so often goes unreported.
“So I think it’s fantastic that we’re able to shine a light on it in this way.”
She also addressed the related topic of a Global Summit being held by British Prime Minister David Cameron on 10 and 11 December, to tackle online child sexual exploitation and which will bring together governments, law enforcement agencies, the technology industry and civil society organisations.
“Our Prime Minister really wants this to be a turning point in tackling this crime internationally and we’ll see concrete commitments from attendees and we really hope Portugal will be able to participate in the conference and that we can continue to work with Portugal on this really important issue.”
For more on Road to Change or to make a donation, see: www.roadtochange.eu