And it’s true. All of it.
Except that something else is true, and the more I thought about it, the more dark and insidious it became, and the angrier I got, and the more I realized that actually the world sucks, and I hate this, and it makes me want to punch people. But I’m a writer, not a fighter, so instead, I’ll use my pen.
Travel is not unsafe for women and children. The world is unsafe for women and children. It always has been.
People say to me, all of the time, “Aren’t you worried about your safety when you travel alone? Aren’t you worried about your kid’s safety out there in the world?”
I generally smile (as patiently as I can) and explain to them that, “No, I am not, the world is generally safe. People are generally good. Women and children are generally cared for persons within a society. With a few basic precautions, the increased risks associated with traveling and being in unfamiliar places are extremely minimal.”
And they are. Extremely minimal.
That’s the brain space I live my life in: The world is generally safe. People are generally good. I believe that. I believe that statistics support my belief. Across all societies people generally abide by the social compact and behave in a neighborly manner. This has, overwhelmingly, been my experience.
But then, I sit down to write about safety traveling, for women and children specifically, and I realize that the issue is not travel. The issue is safety for women and children overall. I start thinking about my own life, and the lives of my kids, and I realize that we aren’t as safe as my 6’4” bald and intimidating husband is. He’s the one that has, on more than one occasion, scared little Mayan children so significantly with his very presence that they’ve run, screaming, for their mothers. Yes, really. He’s a very gentle giant, but nobody gives him any shit.
I start thinking about how I escaped into a Wat once, in Nai Yang, Thailand, with my heart pounding in my throat after I was followed by a white van, at a crawl, down a neighborhood street. He kept coming, after declining three offers of a ride with this stranger, only to have the guy pull up next to me, beep the horn (to shock me into looking) and to find him with his penis in hand, masturbating in my direction. I flipped him the bird, yelled, “Is that all you’ve got!” in English, got my cell phone out so I looked connected, and made a beeline for the safety of the wat. That sucks. That doesn’t happen to men. Something similar has happened to many of my traveling girlfriends. That day, I lit an incense stick to the Buddha in gratefulness that it happened to me and not my young daughter.
I started counting the number of creepy guys in bars with more hands than sense, two drinks in, who don’t take no for an answer, and who a girl has to flee, eventually, to another table, a bigger crowd, or a large male friend. I gave up counting. There are too many.
I remembered, just last summer, walking across Spain on the day I walked into Pamplona alone, hurrying up to two guys I’d just met a few days before and whispering to them, “Just stand here and talk to me, look like we’re together and having a good time… I’ve gotta avoid that old man, he’s been harassing me all day.”
This guy, 70, had been repeatedly pushed away, physically, for getting in my space, grabbing me, trying to kiss me against my will, even after I’d told him I’m married with four kids. He proposed a sexual liaison, daily, for 22 days in a row. Yes. I counted. I laughed him off and didn’t let it ruin my day. I’m a pretty tough chick, but you know, in retrospect, sitting here writing about travel safety for women, it occurs to me that, at the end of the day, I ran to two men I didn’t know much better than the offender for protection and diversion of the threat, because I was out of options.
Does that seem right to you?
I remembered the day my seven year old son came racing up the stairs with his siblings. He was crying, the other three were fighting mad. He’d been slapped, hard, across the face by a man in the street outside of our apartment in Tunisia, “For no reason.” Is there ever a reason to slap a child in the face in the street? In Arab culture, apparently there is.
I remembered the many, many conversations I’ve had with my solo traveling 18 year old daughter about how she should never, ever, under any circumstances, accept a drink from a man, any man, even one you know and trust. Buy your own. Keep it in your own hand. Never set it down. If you’ve forgotten and turn your back on it, buy a new one, don’t finish drinking it. What kind of world do we live in where that is a conversation I need to have with my kid? And yet, I need to have it. It isn’t limited to women. My friend Rolf was drugged and robbed in Istanbul, but his losses were limited to what can be replaced.
More than once in my life I’ve had to have my husband or a male friend become a very visible barrier between me and someone who lacks respect for my personhood, and I’m not a girl that projects weakness. Quite the contrary, I’ve been accused of being “intimidating, hard core and kick ass.” But I’m not a man.
According to the WHO:
- Recent global prevalence figures indicate that 35% of women worldwide have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.
- On average, 30% of women who have been in a relationship report that they have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence by their partner.
- Globally, as many as 38% of murders of women are committed by an intimate partner.
- Between 15% of women in Japan and 71% of women in Ethiopia reported physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
You know what I read in those statistics? That Japan, as a society, is doing better than most, Ethiopia is a war zone for women, and that better than a third of the women you know right now – mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters, cousins, buddies, are victims of some sort of sexual violence.
Friends, it isn’t travel that is unsafe for women: it’s breathing.
As for children, happily, the world is becoming a safer place:
Crime rates are down to levels of the 1960s and 70s in America, Canada, Britain and Australia. And the statistical reality of stranger danger is that for children under age five murdered between 1976 and 2005, strangers were guilty in 3% of cases.
It’s not the strangers you encounter on the road that are dangerous to your kids, folks, it’s their parents, other male acquaintances, and extended family, according to the statistics.
So, what’s the moral of the story, as a woman who often travels alone, and a mother who travels with her children?
It doesn’t matter where I’m at – home or abroad – I am at greater risk by virtue of my gender. We can argue all we want about whether or not women who travel should be able to wear what they want, go where they want, do what they want, and do so with no greater impunity than our male counterparts, but at the end of the day, the reality is that our risk is greater.
The media doesn’t do us any favors, as the main exposure many people have to the inner lives of western women comes through TV and movies, which paints us as sex objects, shallow, in need of rescue, and falling all over the hero men in our lives. Not so much.
- We have to be more careful.
- We have to be mindful of what we wear, how we behave and who we talk to. That makes me violently angry. I hate it. It’s not right. But it is.
- We have to be wary of the men we know, because (for women and children) statistically they are the offenders.
Should that keep us from traveling?
On this point, the statistics are comforting, in a way. Because most of the offenders are likely to be people we know. Overwhelmingly they’re partners, or parents. We can find a little solace in knowing that the world at large presents no greater risk than staying at home.
As women, we need to be smarter, more vigilant, and better prepared than men in how we approach the world, in order to reduce risk and keep ourselves safe. We need to talk with our friends and our daughters about this too, and make sure that, as a community of women, we are working to increase our safety as well as our interaction and freedom within the world at large.
Jodi Ettenberg, at Legal Nomads, has some great practical suggestions for staying safe as a woman traveling, including:
- Carry a rubber doorstop (I’ve been doing this for years), to wedge from the inside of your room at night.
- Carry a safety whistle (also keeps the monkeys at bay – trust me).
- Pay a bit more to stay at a central hostel or guesthouse in a well-lit area of town, with a 24 hour front desk.
- Watch your drink and certainly not getting drunk, especially if you’re alone.
- Err on the side of dressing conservatively. I don’t want to get into a “but it’s an issue of men’s perceptions of women” debate because the reality remains that when you’re traveling, you do need to err on the side of dressing conservatively. I bought a longyi in Myanmar, I covered my head in parts of Indonesia, I wore long sleeves and long dresses and scarves throughout the Middle East and parts of Morocco. In the end, I still stood out, but in respecting the local dress, I definitely felt and saw a difference in the way I was treated.
- Be vague about your hostel/guesthouse. Sometimes a casual conversation will lead to a question about what hostel you are at, or where you are headed next. It’s wise to stay purposefully vague, or have a (faux) backup hostel or guesthouse in mind for those situations. I’m always wary of giving too much information about my whereabouts when traveling alone. This applies, of course, to men as well.
- Be aware that eye contact in some countries can invite aggressive behaviour. Again, it’s not the message I’d like to put out (as in, I wish this wasn’t something we had to worry about), but it can be the case. I am mindful of this fact, especially as a Montrealer – a city that has proudly declared its love of eye contact.
- If you are traveling in a country for more than a few days, register with your local embassy. I’ve done so here for Canada in Vietnam, as have my American and Australian friends in town. Most consular services do include registration for citizens abroad, and it is very helpful in the event of emergency (or even natural disasters).
The reality we all live with, as women, is that the world is not a completely safe place for us. We all live with the specter of threat, from the time we are little girls headed to a friend’s house for a sleepover, to the worry of granny attacks in our old age. We have two choices:
- To be controlled by that fear.
- Or to live our lives in spite of it.
I choose the latter. I’ll live within the realities, even though I hate it. I’ll take the extra precautions, grumble about the inequities, fend off the obnoxious in cultures that are decades behind my own, in terms of women’s rights. I’ll develop a thick skin if I have to, but I won’t quit traveling.
I won’t quit exploring and enjoying this great big world, and I won’t hide behind my husband’s shirt tails to do it. I’ll applaud my daughter for her bravery, and I’ll equip her to take care of herself to the best of her ability, and then I’ll pray to the gods that be for all of her interactions to be positive ones. But I won’t tell her to stay home, stay in, or that she, in anyway, asks for, deserves, or should excuse maltreatment based on her gender, at home or abroad.
Are women and children safe traveling in this world? Yes. Arguably safer than those who stay home.
Is the world a safe place for women and children? No. And we’ve all got to work to change that.
Traveling is as safe as staying home. Staying home is at least as dangerous as traveling.
Read more on solo travel for women and safety on the road: