In many parts of the world, life is not easy for women. The recent report released by the Thomson-Reuters Foundation through Trust Law lists the five most dangerous countries for women. These countries were chosen by 213 gender experts on five continents and are based on a variety of considerations including the risk factors of health threats, sexual violence, non-sexual violence, cultural and religious factors, lack of access to resources including health care and education and human trafficking.
The countries listed in descending order are Afghanistan, Congo, Pakistan, India and Somalia. The reasons listed are as diverse as the countries and include conditions and fatality rate during childbirth, incidents of rape and sexual assault-up to 1,500 a day in Congo, “honor killings,” female genital mutilation-up to 95% of women in Somalia, illiteracy rate-up to 87% in Afghanistan, and lack of power in matters ranging from marriage to politics. These conditions are difficult for many to imagine and, considering the overlap of many of the countries with the list of dangerous travel destinations, most of these countries are probably not a destination of choice in the near future.
Fortunately, women traveling will generally not encounter these specific threats, but there are typically more risks for female travelers. The recent assault on CBS reporter Lara Logan in Egypt is a testament that even seasoned female travelers are vulnerable to threats such as sexual assault. Despite threats and almost universal unwanted attention, this does not mean that women should be fearful of travel, but rather informed and careful.
One of the first things that women can do to ensure their safety while traveling abroad is to start with research about the country’s history and statistics of crime against female visitors. The US State Department website offers up-to-date statistics on the political stability of the country, crime and potential threats to tourists. This is a good place to start, but it may also be wise to look for blogs and reports by other female travelers for a more personal review. Though it is a bit outdated, Jessica Labrencis and RaeJean Stokes offer a fairly comprehensive report on the the best and worst destinations for women worldwide.
Once a destination is chosen, research of hotels and the surrounding area is equally important. While a larger hotel may feel safer through familiarity, a smaller environment affords more personal interaction between the guest and staff and the staff will be more likely to recognize when someone is unwanted or unwelcome. Women may want to look for privacy, but avoid isolation. The location of the hotel within the city or village is possibly more important since it is desirable to be near destinations and can be dangerous to walk for long stretches alone to and from the hotel.
It is not just women that need to be wary of pickpockets and muggers, but since women are perceived as more vulnerable, it is important for them to be aware when venturing into busy areas. To avoid looking lost, get a solid understanding of the area before heading out and carry just a small backup map. Pickpockets tend to thrive in busy areas like bus stops, train stations and markets. When in these areas, it is wise to wear a discreet money belt or carry money and important documents in a couple of locations on your body. Many times, walking with confidence and with your head up will deter an attacker.
Unfortunately, women abroad and in the United States are often victim to unwanted attention and sexual harassment and assault. While there is nothing that can be done to entirely prevent this from happening, there are many small things that women can do to reduce the chances and protect themselves. When traveling within a different culture, the old saying When in Rome, do as the Romans is quite pertinent. The best way to gauge how women are treated and how they react is to observe them. While this can be helpful in a number of foreign experiences and interactions, how local women react to unwanted male attention is undoubtedly the best defense. Women will also be your alley when they realize that you are not there to compete with them. Women should make an effort to associate themselves with local women, or, when traveling alone, stand near groups of women and families for increased security.
Before traveling, women should be aware of what upsets them and where they would draw the line. While living in Cape Verde for my third year, tired of unwanted attention, I intentionally wore a false wedding ring. This small gesture would not have stopped an assault, but it saved me the bother of many tedious conversations and physical discomfort. I also dressed more conservatively than I may have otherwise. When traveling, women should be aware that what would be considered comfortable and casual at home could easily become provocative or offensive upon crossing certain borders.
Aside from being informed and aware, one of the best things for women to do is to have an emergency escape plan. Part of the research of the local area should include resources such as police and public transportation. Women especially should be aware of when the sun rises and sets, avoiding being stranded far from the hotel at dusk. It is also advisable to carry a discreet stash of money for a taxi when this type of situation occurs. Despite potential risks, I absolutely advise women to travel, but to pack reason and caution along with sense and sensibility.