Sexual Harassment While Traveling: Let’s Talk About What to Do
It’s time for a conversation. Image by Flickr user D. Sinclair Terrasidius.
Two ugly words have followed me in almost all of my travels: sexual harassment.
It is a saddening reality that women are rarely regarded as equal to men, even in my home country of America. Traveling women, especially solo, know the irritation and fear of hearing catcalls; seeing leering eyes; and avoiding the strangers who walk and sit too close, “accidentally” making physical contact.
I find that the topic of harassment of women isn’t often discussed. With women dominating more of the solo travel field and asserting our rights in more places than ever before, why is it that I so infrequently see articles about harassment of female travelers?
I want to say outright that this is not an article about femininity and the feminist movement, though it could be. It is not meant to slander a gender as assailants or degrade any particular culture.
I simply want to discuss the experience of harassment as a traveler and give some advice as to how women can travel with less of it in their lives.
Image by Flickr user martinak15.
As a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia, I live in a culture where women are distinctly subservient to men.
My skin color (sun-burned white), level of education, and status as a volunteer from America enable me to live in a “third gender” role of sorts. I am not quite equal to a man, but nor am I expected to be as obedient as local women.
Though my foreign status often helps me escape some of the pressures of womanhood in Zambia, it also makes me fair game in the eyes of local men, a target for harassment not tolerated by local women.
The harassment is mostly catcalls and men who follow me while hawking their wares. Usually politely brushing them off or ignoring them is effective.
But I am not always so fortunate.
Recently, I was on a Canter (an open bed truck used for public transport) and found myself a victim of a scary brand of harassment.
The men running my transport had been drinking heavily, and they began grabbing me and shouting drunkenly, sitting closer as they broke cultural barriers against touching the opposite sex in public.
The situation escalated from scary to dangerous as night fell and the Canter driver decided our original destination (my home) was too far. I was stuck alongside the road in an unknown village, surrounded by leering, groping drunk men.
I was desperate for safety.
I was lucky.
A local female teacher came to my rescue with a place to sleep and help finding transport to my village the next morning. Without her my story could have had a much more upsetting end.
Young Zambian girl. Photo from Flickr user Damien Firmenich.
Reflecting on this experience, I was most disturbed by two facts:
1) The other women on the Canter did absolutely nothing to silence my assailants.
Culturally in Zambia, women do not speak up to men often and are even more silent in the face of young drunks. Speaking up on my behalf probably seemed like an impossible risk to take. This, while unfortunate and frustrating, is something I accept but hope to influence over the course of my volunteer service.
2) The response to my experience by my male volunteer friends was disappointing.
While they were sympathetic to my plight that night, their understanding of the fear of sexual assault and of being constantly, keenly aware of their bodily safety when traveling alone was cursory at best.
Their experience as male volunteers simply doesn’t include (with some rare exceptions) the need to always be vigilant of their bodies and the sickeningly frequent attempts by others to breach their privacy.
I appreciate that my male friends try to be supportive, and in Peace Corps we are lucky to have a culture of allies who stand up for one another in circumstances like mine.
But when women want to talk about how our travel and living experiences involve another layer of safety and security, it’s a topic considered perfunctory, best left to policy makers and other women.
This is where I disagree.
Supporting women in their efforts to live and travel harassment free is everyone’s job, no matter your gender or sexual identity.
Maybe you don’t think it’s your business.
Maybe you think it’s a personal safety risk to intervene on someone else’s behalf.
This reasoning may be valid.
But broad changes in behaviors are not brought about by sitting idly by or averting your eyes from uncomfortable situations.
While we’re working on changing the world, here are a few tried and true tips from my own travels to help you avoid harassment and explore the world freely:
Educate yourself on local customs, respect local culture.
While in most places there aren’t any laws dictating dress, clothing can be used as a show of respect for local customs and can help you blend in with local women, making yourself less of a target for harassment.
My personal rule is to keep everything between my knees and shoulders under wraps while out in public.
Know your surroundings and resources.
Know your surroundings. Photo by Flickr user Matt E.
Wandering aimlessly around new places can be a neat way to explore.
As you wander, keep in mind the “bad” parts of town and how you could get away fast if you found yourself the target of persistent and unsafe attention.
Knowing the local law enforcement number, the location of a nearby station, and the closest bus route to your accomodations is crucial should harassment try to follow you home.
Make friends with local shop owners or the person working the late shift at your accomodation. If someone is bothering you, people like these could be great allies.
Similarly, recognize the people in society who are most likely to be able to help you.
I believe teachers (in many places) are a great resource because they tend to speak English, are accustomed to foreigners, and are less driven by poverty since they are paid well.
Acknowledge that harassment happens to locals as well as foreigners but that it may be difficult to recognize in the local cultural context.
Ultimately, no one has the right to touch or harass you.
I think those men on the Canter would have been shamed into silence if the people around me had raised their voices.
Silence, in the case of harassment, is similar to consent: The harasser’s behavior is acceptable, or at least no one is going to challenge it.
If no one else speaks for you, you have to speak for yourself.
If someone makes a pass or bothers you, bring their behavior to light — loudly. Try to use local language so that others understand what is occuring. While silence may be interpreted as consent, loud and pointed refusal is hard to mistake.
On the flip side, it’s always okay to ask someone if they need help if you’re unsure of what to do. Sometimes just your presence and acknowledging that you see something is enough to deter a troublesome situation.
Harassment will continue to be a problem as long as those who commit such offenses feel it is safe and acceptable to do so. In your journeys, be part of a growing global movement to detect, deter, and diffuse harassment, turning the world into a safer place for everyone.
Have you ever witnessed sexual harassment abroad? What did you do about it?
Want to read more about women abroad? Check out Hannah’s blog.