The Plight of the Female Traveller

In light of International Women’s Day, and the news of the horrific ordeal faced by a 22-year-old Brit in Australia over recent months, I think it’s more important than ever to discuss the issues of sexism, harassment and, more importantly, the safety of female travellers around the world.

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As a languages student fresh from my year abroad, travelling solo has always seemed like an adventure. However, as a woman it can also be a hassle – or, at times, even a danger.

While abroad I frequently experienced stares, catcalls and unwanted attention that, while also commonplace in England, are even more intimidating when you’re on unfamiliar territory. Although this is (unfortunately) accepted by some as ‘the norm’, the sheer amount and nature of the comments soon took its toll.

And it wasn’t just me; speaking to other female travellers, who’d been staying in a whole host of places around the world, revealed that the issue is even worse and more widespread than I’d imagined. Most of the women I spoke to were usually targeted alone or with other female friends and experienced the kinds of stares and whistles that many of us have become used to, both back home and abroad. But unfortunately it didn’t end there.

Some were approached by male colleagues who became persistent and aggressive in their advances, something which 21-year-old Holly never expected to happen in the workplace. Several girls even reported feeling so uncomfortable from stares and remarks in the street that they would no longer wear skirts out of the house, one telling me it was “definitely the biggest downside” of her year abroad.

An even more shocking example came from 22-year-old Lara, who described an incident during her travels when a guy squeezed her bum in the street, then doubled back to grab her *down there* before running off laughing. On another occasion, she explains:

“I was once walking towards the busy main street to catch the metro. A man was coming towards me and when we made eye contact he tried to push me up against the wall as I attempted to move past him. He hissed at me, clicked his tongue and I couldn’t think of anything to do other than say some obscenities in English. No one else seemed to bat an eyelid.”

Now, every community has different views and customs when it comes to gender equality, meaning that attitudes and behaviours towards women’s roles vary greatly – so it is worth checking country specific travel advice before setting off. But, we must also be aware that harassment does happen worldwide, wherever you go, and anyone can be victim to it.

However, the previous examples suggest that it is young women, in particular those travelling alone, that tend to be singled out. This could be because, when abroad and unfamiliar with the area, solo female travellers are seen as more vulnerable and therefore an easier target. The worst part is, because of this vulnerability and often a language barrier, the girls I spoke to all recounted feeling powerless when approached, not knowing what to do or how to act.

These examples seem to shine a light on just a small area of what is really a much wider debate about equality and women’s safety in general. I love travelling and never want other women to feel put off by the unfortunate experiences of others. Getting out there and seeing the world is not only our right, but also an incredibly valuable experience in terms of personal growth. However, it is important that we begin an open discussion about the inequalities and potential risks that still exist for women across the world, in order to raise awareness.

The better prepared women are when beginning their adventures, the safer they will be, and the more they will enjoy their time abroad. If you are thinking of journeying overseas, start by checking out the FCO country guides – these offer specific advice for women travellers, highlighting any issues you should be aware of before setting off. For more ways to get prepared take a look at our Top Tips below, and don’t forget the FCO travel checklist.

Top Tips for women travelling abroad:

  • Visiting an area you don’t know well? Travel in a group.
  • Let people know where you’re going and how to contact you.
  • Make friends with trustworthy locals where possible.
  • Try to learn some of the language.
  • Dress appropriately to the cultural/religious customs.
  • Check out safe, licensed taxi companies before travelling.
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