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Staying safe: Sexual harassment and female travellers

January 24, 2013 - Jo Lane

IF you’re a woman and you’ve traveled abroad you’re bound to have experienced some form of sexual harassment.

While the public outcry over the recent rape and murder case in Delhi has brought out the problems of this nature in Indian society–as explained in an interesting piece this week by Neeta Lal for Asia Sentinel–I’m afraid that India isn’t the only place this happens.

Lal wrote:

I have lived in New Delhi most of my life. To my disgust, embarrassment and anger, as a necessary condition of living in the city I have had my breasts squeezed in a crowded public bus, felt a guy’s hardness against my leg in a Metro and have had my buttocks pinched several times.

I am not alone. Every single woman who has had to travel by public transport in the city has faced molestation and in extreme cases, rape with chilling regularity.

She also said:

Having lived and worked abroad and traveled to 42 countries (alone as well), ironically, I’ve felt far safer in alien surroundings than in my own home country. I’ve been to a late night Moulin Rouge show alone in Paris, visited restaurants/cafes, walked around London after dark, taken public transport across America, Canada, Hong Kong, Of course men have tried to cozy up, offered to buy me drinks etc. But that’s as persuasive as it’s got. Touching or coming on too strong? No.

Is it the strong deterrents against sexual assault that keep men in check abroad?

In my experience, no, men misbehave all over the world. I have lived and worked abroad also and while I’ve experienced a lot of harassment in India, and it’s not a place I enjoy traveling alone, the worst forms of harassment for me have actually occurred in Europe. They also happened across Asia, Australia and Africa and include being groped and even assaulted (Paris metro), propositioned, harassed, followed, flashed, lewd remarks, men rubbing themselves (mostly Italy) and not being allowed to participate in certain activities because of gender.

In one of the potentially worse case scenarios I overheard a conversation between a man and young woman in the hotel room next to me in Vientiane, Laos. I could tell she was beginning to pass out as he began to undress. I persuaded him to leave but management didn’t want anything to do with it.

It is perhaps interesting to note however that while most of these cases occurred when I was traveling alone they were often in public, sometimes crowded places, and during the day. None of these cases involved me being in a bar, out late at night, drinking, taking drugs, smoking, flirting or inviting attention.

While not all countries report the same number of rapes as India–in fact the US, Sweden, and UK have higher numbers of reported rapes– and certainly the female feticide is more unique to India and sadly rising, it has left me of the opinion that if you travel alone as a woman unfortunately that seems to invite trouble. If you sit on a bus men may try to grab you. If you visit a park someone might flash you. While this may seem ridiculous it is true at times that women that are on their own in public in some countries are soliciting prostitutes, hence the unwanted attention when you are quietly eating your dinner somewhere.

I am pleased to say, that like Neeta Lal I’ve had the pleasure of publicing shaming perpetrators and using a fist on another. Other times I’ve brought the acts to the attention of male companions who have stepped in. But in most cases the best way of dealing with the situation has simply been to leave as quickly as possible – I took refuge once in a church in Italy from an unwanted companion.

Lal says attitudinal changes need to be made in India:

However, apart from administrative changes, attitudinal changes towards women also need a revamp. Baying for the rapists’ blood, or putting them through inhumane forms of torture won’t solve anything. What we need is public sensitization through a concerted print and audio-visual media campaign and gender-sensitization training programs for politicians and the cops.

It has been good to see some Indian men taking a stand about attitudes too. In Bangalore men wore skirts to show that it wasn’t “immodest” clothing that invited rape. Their signs said “teach your sons not to rape” and “men, don’t skirt the issue, speak up, support women”.

Men in skirts. Pic: Frisky.com

Other signs during the mass protests about the rape around India read “don’t teach your daughters what to wear, teach your sons not to rape”.

One billion people traveled the world last year, and this number will only grow. Just as the UNWTO turned that statistic into a campaign to make a billion opportunities out of those travelers, and asked people how they could make a difference, we can ask ourselves how we can be part of this solution to change attitudes because it’s not only in India that they are needed.

It’s male companions intervening when they see harassment, without waiting for it to be pointed out. It’s female travellers sticking up for each other or kindly explaining nuances of local dress and behaviour if you do see something inappropriate. And it’s all of us behaving and acting in responsible ways when we travel.

Staying safe: Sexual harassment and female travellers
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