Trigger warning: This post discusses sexual harassment and assault.
I’ve lived in a few different countries in my life. I can tell you that misogyny, sexism and sexual harassment and assault are not exclusive to any one country. I’ve been a victim in Italy, the Czech Republic, the UK and at home in the U.S. It’s not something I or many other women talk about much, but then Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive, was kidnapped while walking home from a friend’s house in London. She was murdered, and now millions of women in the UK and beyond are grieving her loss and remembering all the times they felt threatened or were harmed by men.
This wasn’t an easy post to write, but I’d be remiss as a female travel blogger not to discuss the realities of being a woman in this world, especially abroad, because those Instagram photos sure as hell don’t show them.
One of the worst nights of my life was at an Italian nightclub. I was with a female Italian friend, her boyfriend and two of her male friends. One of the friends started dancing with me. Moments later, he had his hand down my trousers in the middle of the crowded dancefloor. I was 20. He was 36.
It took a long time for me to recover from that horrible night, and I didn’t tell anyone for years, but ever since it happened, I’ve tried to be vigilant and prepared. Here are some of the things that I’ve learnt about sexual harassment and assault as a female traveller:
You don’t always get the support you need.
When I’ve experienced sexual harassment and assault in the U.S., I’ve known whom to contact and how to report those incidents. In other countries, there aren’t always the same kind of designated professionals or resources.
Tip: Research thoroughly about what support is available before travelling anywhere. Make sure to add emergency and support contact numbers in your phone. Additionally, the U.S. Department of State offers some guidance for women travellers. If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault overseas, you can contact the Office of Overseas Citizens Services at 1-888-407-4747 (from overseas: +1 202-501-4444) or the closest U.S. embassy or consulate.
You don’t always get the response you expect.
Some cultures are less condemning of sexual harassment and assault due to different social systems and power structures. I’ve been to countries where victim-blaming and slut-shaming are highly normalised. A close international friend once criticised my behaviour leading up to my being sexually assaulted. Since then, I’ve been reluctant to openly discuss my experiences with international friends because of cultural barriers. I hate that since I value cultural exchange, but I have to respect my vulnerability when it comes to sexual harassment and assault and seek support elsewhere.
You may not be able to get a self-defense weapon.
In some countries, certain self-defense weapons are illegal or simply unavailable. For this reason, I’m a huge advocate for physical self-defense. Before going to the Czech Republic, I was taught some strategies for protecting myself.
Tip: Take a self-defense class and/or watch some instructional videos in preparation for a trip.
You may not receive help even if someone witnesses you being harassed or assaulted.
The bystander effect is international and can be more prevalent in certain cultures. This can embolden perpetrators and leave victims even more vulnerable. It also doesn’t help to be a foreign national who likely doesn’t speak the local language, and the word ‘help’ is not universally recognised.
You should always tell someone your plans.
Most women know to text a friend when they’ve arrived somewhere or if they need help. This is even more important abroad in unfamiliar environments. I used to take weekend trips to Prague when I was living in the Czech Republic. One day, my employer (also my visa sponsor and landlord) asked me to leave behind some indication of where I was going to be in case I disappeared because kidnapping, murder and human trafficking are frightening realities.
Tip: Tell someone the name of your hotel, hostel or other accommodation and when you expect to return. You can also write down this information and leave it in a visible place in your home where a landlord, family member or police officer could easily find it.
It doesn’t matter where I am. I feel constantly under threat as a woman. Whether I’m in the U.S. or the Czech Republic, I still wear trainers, take out my headphones and clutch my keys when I’m out at night. Sarah Everard did everything right, and people are mourning her loss.
To my female readers, keep being brave and strong. Keep your voices heard, and know that you are not alone. We are fighting together for a safer world.
To my male readers, do your part. Listen to women, validate their feelings and condemn misogyny, sexism and sexual harassment and assault. Take accountability for when you didn’t call out friends who made inappropriate sexual remarks. Take accountability for when you dismissed women who said they felt threatened. Take accountability for when you did nothing, and start doing something.
This week, I’m thanking UN Women UK (Instagram: @unwomenuk). A week after Sarah Everard’s disappearance, the organisation released a report showing that 71% of all women in the UK have experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public space. UN Women UK has launched the campaign Safe Spaces Now to address this horrifying problem. They’ve asked Parliament to consider their proposed solutions for change and are pursuing many initiatives to educate the public and advocate for women. Thank you, UN Women UK!