Safety Issues for Women Traveling Solo
Stay Safe But Don’t Stay Home
By Zahara Heckscher
|Zaraha Heckscher (left) with a Musonda friend in Zambia.
Women are frequently warned about independent international travel. Unfortunately, it is true that women are much more likely than men to be the victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault. In virtually every country I have visited I heard from female travelers and volunteers who had been subjected to "frequent come-ons, unwanted touching, or inappropriate comments," in the words of one Peace Corps volunteer. Harassment and assault range from verbal harassment, to crude propositions, to groping (especially by men in buses or trains), to, in rare cases, rape.
Sexual harassment is particularly common in the developing world, but women are also targeted in Western Europe. In addition, female travelers face the other dangers that challenge all trekkers: illness, accidents, and, rarely, political violence. After traveling in numerous countries on five continents, I would hate to suggest that women should stay home. But I do urge female travelers to think carefully about safety issues before leaving home and to take prudent steps to increase safety on the road.
Sensitivity vs. Safety
One of the challenges for women volunteers overseas is that we may focus too intensely on being culturally sensitive and allow our personal safety to become a secondary issue. An American traveler in East Africa allowed a local acquaintance into her hotel room because she did not want to appear racist and was shocked when he made sexual advances. A volunteer let her host father put his arm around her when they walked around the village, which he interpreted as a green light to initiate a sexual relationship. Follow your intuition about a situation—it’s better to risk offending someone than to risk being assaulted.
You should know that in many places if a woman invites a man to her home he thinks that she is inviting him to have sex, especially if she is a North American. If you do not want romantic involvement with someone, be sure to avoid compromising situations—situations where it would be difficult to get out if you felt endangered.
Remember that there are various ways to respond to harassment. Responses can range from saying "No," firmly but nicely, to screaming, fighting, or running away. Modify your response according to the situation. In some cultures, a simple "No" is a polite way of saying "Maybe." Some situations may require a more forceful message. Women abroad, as well as at home, are much more likely to be sexually assaulted by men they know than by strangers.
Baywatch is the most watched television show in history, and European and American porn flicks are seen by audiences around the world. It is not surprising, therefore, that many people overseas think Western women, including women of color, are "loose." This assumption almost inevitably leads to harassment and misunderstanding. When you fight back against harassment you are fighting years of Hollywood imagery as well.
Unfortunately, you will need to modify your behavior to combat these stereotypes and avoid unwanted attention. Most women travelers act more conservatively overseas than they might at home, giving up certain freedoms in exchange for an enhanced sense of safety. In many cultures smoking, barhopping, or simply drinking beer could put you in the "sexually available" category. I advise you to leave your skimpy clothes at home. In rural areas, tank tops or shorts may be considered inappropriate, as are clothes that show cleavage or belly buttons. Several Africans I interviewed urged travelers to dress modestly and explained: "Your American styles are offensive here and set a bad example for our children." Avoid sexual dancing and flirting. Behavior you might consider normal at home may be scandalous or even dangerous overseas.
There are a number of strategies that women have used to avoid harassment. Some women wear a wedding ring to discourage would-be suitors. (In India, a toe ring on your second toe means you’re not available.) Many volunteers learn strategies from local women. In Mexico, for example, women often sit together, even if they don’t know each other.
Other tips, in the words of previous travelers, include:
• "Be careful about letting your guard down while on vacation."
• "Travel with a group at night."
• "Before you leave home, talk to other women who have traveled in the countries you plan to visit."
• "The in-country program director cautioned us against looking or staring at the men for too long at a time; this could be misinterpreted since the women in the local villages were taught not to make eye contact with the men."
• "Be ready to give up some freedoms that you are used to at home."
• "Females must take care with their dealings with any male older than 14 and younger than 75. I was often misunderstood at first and didn’t realize that plain speaking and looking at a man directly when speaking to him could be misinterpreted as flirting. I learned quickly to be very formal and to always involve several people in any conversation."
• "Don’t be afraid to ask about the security situation where you are posted and find out about any prior incidents that may have occurred in the area."
• "When it comes to your life, you can’t be too cautious."
No matter what you do or don’t do, remember that it is not your fault if you are assaulted. If you are raped or assaulted, it is most important to get to a safe place, then seek medical care and emotional support. The local police station may not be a safe place. A friend, neighboring family, or hospital may be safer. If you are overseas as part of a program you will want to notify your school, host family, or organization’s staff for support. You are not alone, and you deserve support.
After sexual harassment, illness is the most common danger for travelers. Don’t drink unbottled water or use ice. Even in Western Europe, local microbes may be a shock to your system. Visit the Centers for Disease Control website and a travel clinic before you leave home and get all the necessary shots and prescriptions. If you do get sick, visit an embassy-recommended doctor.
Street crime is an increasing problem. I met a woman whose gold chain was ripped from her neck only five minutes after she arrived at the Nairobi bus station. Moral: don’t arrive in a strange town after dark. I try to travel with a group of friends (local or international) when I go out at night in urban areas of Africa and Latin America. I have also found that local bus drivers and passengers can often provide tips about the relative safety or danger of certain areas. Put most of your money in a money belt, but always have enough on hand to give to a thief if you are held up.
Car and bus accidents are the leading killers of overseas travelers. Remember that cars may drive on the "wrong" side of the road, traffic signals may be ignored, and even some sidewalks may not be safe. On trips on winding roads, try to travel during the day and know that first class buses may be safer than third class. Know where the life preservers are if you travel by ferry. Exercise extreme caution when swimming. A good friend of mine was swimming on an innocent-looking beach in Mexico while on spring break. The undertow sucked her under and dragged her out to sea. She was rescued by a surfer and resuscitated, but the surfer was unable to rescue my friend’s travel partner. Don’t let this happen to you. Swim only on well-marked beaches with other swimmers and take extra care after rains that could change tidal flows.
Political Violence and Terrorism
Compared to sexual harassment, crime, and illness, political terrorism is rare. American citizens are much more likely to get hit by lightening than to die of overseas terrorist attacks. Still, some choose to protect themselves by sewing a Canadian flag to their luggage and by closely following State Department warnings, which usually err on the side of caution.
Life-threatening dangers are rare for travelers. Don’t let fear prevent you from going overseas, and don’t let fear ruin your trip. Be smart. Be prepared. Stay safe, but don’t stay home.
ZAHARA HECKSCHER is the co-author of the book How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas, which includes evaluations of over 80 volunteer programs and suggestions for preparing to volunteer. Zahara co-authored a follow-up book which is an instant immediate classic titled "Learning Service: The Essential Guide for Volunteering Abroad."