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Safety Tips for Women Traveling Internationally

3/5/2020
Nearly two-thirds of individuals traveling today are women, according to a 2016 report from the George Washington School of Business. Although a majority of women travel without difficulties, female travelers often face greater challenges than their male counterparts in terms of their safety and health, especially when traveling alone.
 
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Nearly two-thirds of individuals traveling today are women, according to a 2016 report from the George Washington School of Business. Although a majority of women travel without difficulties, female travelers often face greater challenges than their male counterparts in terms of their safety and health, especially when traveling alone. Women are also more likely to be affected by cultural practices and religious beliefs in other countries.

Rights and privileges that may be taken for granted at home may not be customary or even exist in some countries, while the local expectations of behavior will vary based on cultural, legal, or political disparities. For example, in countries which follow a strict interpretation of Islamic law, gender segregation prevails in various social settings, such as men and women sitting apart on public transport. Body language and other forms non-verbal communication that may be considered harmless or socially acceptable in one country, such as public displays of affection or consuming alcohol, may be misinterpreted, seen as taboo, or even criminalized elsewhere.

Women may also attract unwanted male attention during their travels. Being friendly and outgoing may be interpreted as flirting or extending a sexual invitation, especially if one is traveling alone. In some cultures, harassment may be considered by some men as a socially acceptable, or at least tolerable, interaction; this can involve stares, winking, whistling, or suggestive comments. On public transport and where crowds gather - such as markets or festivals - men may brush against or even grope women.

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Tips and Advice

While most incidents relating to cultural misunderstandings only result in inconvenience and embarrassment, the potential exists for physical harm, legal reprimand, or deportation. Nonetheless, it is important that travelers do research in advance and understand the cultural and legal differences. The US State Department and foreign government equivalents publish important cultural and legal information on their respective travel advisory pages. It is important to exercise cultural sensitivity while abroad and be prepared to adapt to local norms and traditions, within reason.

Being aware of and familiarizing oneself with local laws and customs will reduce the likelihood of uncomfortable social situations and/or being targeted. Checking travel advisories from governments, consulting travel forums online and seeking the advice of women who have lived or who travel to the destination regularly will assist.

In socially conservative countries, it is recommended to avoid shorts and form-fitting clothing that may be perceived as provocative, and instead opt for baggy trousers or long skirts. Although arms typically don’t have to be fully covered, it is advised to carry a shawl/scarf and a light jacket for additional cover when on public transport, markets, tourist locales and crowded areas in general.

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Female travelers should not feel pressured to respond if someone tries to talk them; they should maintain their composure, ignore or politely rebuff unwelcome approaches and extract themselves from the situation. In cultures where even meeting a man’s gaze might be interpreted as indicating you want his company, wearing dark glasses in public spaces may be a solution. However, dressing modestly and keeping a low profile will not always defend against prospective harassers, and travelers should be prepared and trained on what measures to take in order to minimize their personal risk.

In some cities - such as Jakarta, Tokyo, Mumbai, and Rio - it is possible to avoid advances on public transport by using female-only sections on buses and trains. If you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation or are being harassed, anecdotal evidence suggests that chastising the offender and/or making a commotion to attract attention from passers-by is an effective tactic to force an assailant to retreat.

Other precautions applicable to both men and women should be followed as well, including but not limited to, acting confidently at all times, remaining mindful of surroundings, not leaving drinks unattended, not sharing accommodation/itinerary plans with strangers and avoid walking in isolated areas, especially after dark. In general, doing research in advance to understand cultural differences and potential obstacles in your destination, and taking cues from locals about what is considered as acceptable behavior, will go a long way to ensure that a trip goes smoothly.
In case of a travel emergency during your next trip, make sure to download the Assist America Mobile App. With just a tap of a button, you can be connected to our 24/7 Operations Team. The app also includes many features that may be helpful during your travels such as Pre-Trip Information, U.S. Pharmacy Locator, and Global Embassy Locator.