Stay Safe But Don’t Stay Home
By Zahara Heckscher
Zaraha Heckscher(left) with a Musonda friend in Zambia from Safety Issues for Women Traveling Solo: Stay Safe But Don’t Stay Home.
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. Sexual Stereotypes 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...