When Running Meets Activism
The oft-repeated axiom is that all anyone needs to run is the will and a pair of running shoes – except, as Stephanie Case discovered, it isn’t quite that simple. In 2012, Case, a United Nations human rights lawyer, was stationed in Afghanistan. As an avid ultrarunner, she wanted to maintain her training regime during her placement, but she faced unexpected hurdles. “I was living in an armed compound in Kabul under UN security rules,” Case says. “I couldn’t walk outside, let alone run. Running is an integral part of my identity, and suddenly I was in an environment where my freedom was taken away.”
Undeterred, she began running laps within the compound at night, but her experience with restricted freedom got her to think about how she could improve the lives of Afghan girls and women through sport. “Through my work, I met many women and girls who were not only restricted in their movements by security threats, but also by social and cultural norms that largely confined them to the home,” explains Case. “They wanted to be able to play sports, walk or run outside, or do any of the things that we take for granted, but they didn’t have the chance.”
Afghanistan has one of the worst reputations for women’s rights globally, and despite advancements since the fall of the Taliban, women still encounter obstacles to justice and involvement in public life. Marital rape is commonplace, and at 13 per cent, women’s literacy rate is the lowest in the world. Outdoor athletics is the exclusive domain of men.
Case ran three ultramarathons and raised $10,000 for a local women’s shelter, but to her surprise, the women were more interested in her running than her philanthropic efforts. “The older women had grown up participating in sports before the Taliban gained power, but the younger ones had never known the joys of running,” says Case. “What they wanted me to do was to help them to run.”
This moment formed the catalyst for Free to Run, a non-profit Case founded in 2014 that aims to empower women and girls in areas affected by conf lict by providing outdoor sports opportunities. Over the past four years, the organization has grown to include a pilot program in South Sudan and there are plans to launch activities in Iraq and the Democratic Republic of the Congo later this year.
Through Free to Run, Case intertwines her passions of running and promoting human rights, a cause that has remained close to her heart since she joined the UN. Originally from Ontario, Case spent four years living and working in the world’s war zones, from South Sudan to Gaza. Now based in Chamonix, France, she works for the