On the ‘dangers’ of female travel

This could just be a story about countries deemed dangerous for women to travel to. But it’s more than that. This is a story about our perception of danger and how we’re told time and time again that the unfamiliar and the foreign are more dangerous to us than what is on our own doorstep.

A couple of months back, British tabloid the Daily Mail ran a story in their travel section titled ‘Sex attacks, muggings, and harassment: World’s most dangerous holiday destinations for women (and some of them may surprise you)’. The top ten list declared India; Brazil; Turkey; Thailand; Egypt; Colombia; South Africa; Morocco; Mexico; and Kenya to be the most dangerous countries for female travellers.

We’ll get back to that shortly.  First I want to tell you about a strange encounter I had in Medellin, Colombia in 2001.

After a hard couple of days travelling, I was lounging around at the backpacker hostel for the afternoon when the film ‘A Cry in the Dark’ about the famous Australian dingo-baby-stealing case came on the television (you know, the one with Meryl Streep doing that Australian accent). With nothing else planned, I sat down with the hostel staff to watch it. As the film credits rolled at the end, one of the hostel staff shook their head and quite seriously announced they would never visit Australia. ‘Dingoes steal babies! The police are bad and try to pin crimes on you! And you go to jail!’

So sitting in Medellin, once known as the most violent city on earth, and still tainted with an insalubrious reputation for gang crime during 2001, a local was telling me they would be too scared to holiday in the land of kangaroos and beach barbeques. It was pretty funny.

More seriously though, this is the type of knee-jerk reaction which the Daily Mail attempts to feed on when it splashes a story about female travel safety across its pages. They’re playing on our basic instinct of safety in familiarity and the fear of what is foreign. Note the countries they chose for the list. There’s not a so-called ‘western’ country among them. They’re all in the developing world: Africa, Asia and Latin America. There’s nothing surprising about the list – despite the article title saying so – because it’s the same tired naming and shaming that has been done copious times before to these countries by the travel media.

Despite not considering myself particularly brave, I’ve travelled extensively through nine of the countries above (just South Africa to go) and lived in both Egypt and Turkey for several years. I’d be the first to admit that travelling as a woman is not a walk in the park. It can be frustrating, angering and simply fucking exhausting at certain times. But how are the Daily Mail qualifying the countries above as the world’s most dangerous destinations for women travellers?

If you read the article you’ll see that each country on the list gets a short paragraph of scary statistics on dangers in country. Number one on the list is India which the Daily Mail qualifies for its winning position by stating that ‘gang rapes of local women and tourists have reached worrying levels in parts of the country with reports suggesting that a sexual assault is reported every twenty minutes.’

I don’t want to downplay India’s dismal statistics on sexual harassment and rape. Anyone who has seen Leslee Udwin’s documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ about the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh knows that India has a long path to walk in changing ingrained male attitudes towards women. But I wondered how some other countries, which definitely didn’t make the Daily Mail’s list, would fare if I gave them the same treatment.

So using the Daily Mail’s style this is what happens when we apply it to Great Britain:

Millions of female tourists holiday in Great Britain every year but rapes and sexual assaults of women in the country are at a sky-high level with an October 2014 report issued by the Office of National Statistics stating that 22,106 incidences of rape had been reported to police that year by June. An official crime analysis estimates that one in five women over the age of 16 has been a victim of sexual assault in England and Wales.

Drink-spiking with date-rape drugs ketamine, Rohypnol and GHB has become a serious issue at clubs and bars in recent years with a 2014 survey suggesting that one in ten Brits may have been the victim of drink-spiking. Women visiting the capital London should be particularly vigilant about their personal safety, especially while taking transport home at night. Using unlicensed minicabs is particularly dangerous; more than 10 sexual assaults are reported every month in the capital.

And now let’s apply the same treatment to the USA.

Street harassment for women continues to be a serious problem for women in the USA, particularly in large cities such as New York, as shown in the video ‘10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman‘. Rape and gender-based violence is a major issue with the latest figures from the FBI’s crime report stating a staggering 79,770 rapes reported in 2013 – which works out on average to one rape, every six minutes.

Due to lax gun control laws, there is a high incidence of gunpoint robberies and other gun crime throughout the country. Female travellers should remain vigilant at all times, particularly if using public transport and walking at night.

And now let’s stop here for a minute and consider that whopping 79,770 rape statistic because I know my jaw dropped to the ground when I read it for the first time.

Let’s make one thing clear. I’m not saying that India; Brazil; Turkey; Thailand; Egypt; Colombia; South Africa; Morocco; Mexico; and Kenya don’t have a problem with gender-based violence. I’m saying that in reality, gender-based violence is a world-wide issue, not confined to the countries above.

The Daily Mail (and plenty of other media outlets) are simply using people’s fear of the unknown when they select which countries make their grade of ‘most dangerous’ for women travellers. Otherwise why would a country like Spain – where in the popular package tourist resort of Magaluf a series of highly publicised gang-rapes and sexual assaults on tourists have taken place in recent years – not make the list? Because Spain is European and familiar, and just like us.

Over the past 20 years of my travelling life I’ve been called by various people brave, bonkers, fearless, idiotic and stupidly reckless just because of the places I’ve chosen to travel to. Yet, gender-based violence and harassment is as much a problem for women in the western world from Melbourne to Madrid and London to Los Angeles. So should we all just cower at home instead? Fuck that.

Travelling as a female is always going to have certain extra risk factors that male travellers simply don’t need to contend with or worry about but you know what, they’re the same risks and dangers women face everywhere simply by stepping out of their house. So, spare us the scaremongering. The question female travellers should be asking is not ‘which countries should I avoid to be safe’, but instead ‘why the fuck in 2015 am I still more likely than a man to be a victim of violence anywhere’.

188 thoughts on “On the ‘dangers’ of female travel

  1. Reblogged this on Acaro and commented:
    As a female who seeks to travel to many many places in the future, I found this absolutely enlightening.

  2. Reblogged this on The Womad and commented:
    An absolute must read….. Very well presented facts. Don’t let propaganda dissuade you from exploring the world… But do it with sensibility

  3. Wow, this is an amazing post!😀
    I am a girl recently transitioning into an adult woman and my dreams have always been to travel the world. Although I mostly grew up in Sydney, Australia, I now live in Bangladesh so I do understand the similarities and differences between the two opposite countries of the world. Just like the media had intended, I had believed as well that it would be safer for me to travel to Western countries rather than Asian countries. After reading your effectual post, I am beginning to realise that you are correct about the situation being similar in both parts of the world for a travelling woman. My mother always told me what you are saying through this post but I had never really believed it until now. Thanks a lot for your insight!

  4. This is an interesting read and I liked your use of the same sorts of statistics the Daily Mail uses being applied against the countries it tends not to slag off quite so much. Sadly the Daily Mail uses that particular tactic of playing on people’s fears over and over again, merely to sell more papers without any concerns about the conequences of it’s actions. It’s natural that people who have no other experience to go by take what is put out by the media as fact or at least as their point of reference in forming opinions about the dangers of certain places and then simply accept these dangers without further question. I’ve definitely been guilty of this and know plenty of others who have too, at least until the experiene of others causes us to reassess the dangers we thought were such a given. Thanks for taking the time to write this and hopefully encouraging a few more of us to reconsider visiting places we may have been too afraid to think of before.

  5. Very enjoyable read and brings out a good point! Such bias is, as the article suggests, unfounded. Gender based violence shouldn’t be presented as a ‘non-white’ phenomena, as the Daily Mail would have us believe, and in any case, we shouldn’t forget the millions of women who live quite similarly to women in the UK in all of these ‘dangerous’ countries.

  6. Great essay. Hear, hear. As a woman who carried a backpack alone around the planet for a couple of years (even S. Africa) because she wanted to see the world more than she was afraid of the world, fuck the idea of staying home to stay safe. Was it dangerous? Yes, sometimes. Was it work it? Fuck, yes. Listen to the inner voice, not the multitude of braying hacks. Newspapers are, by and large, mostly printed fear.

    What I found after tramping though some 18 countries was we are all more similar than we are different.

    That, and I can do anything I put my mind to.

    Those are 2 good lessons to learn.

  7. Reblogged this on womanity2015 and commented:
    We, speaking especially in the sense of a woman traveler, are entitled to explore this Earth without reservation. Why is it that in this new millennium now more than ever we are faced with predatory agendas – both domestic and abroad… #womanityNOW

  8. Reblogged this on 6816.4 Miles Away and commented:
    Thought I’d reblog this. It brings up some great points about female travel and perception of danger. I would add that the question shouldn’t be “where is it safe/ dangerous for me to travel” but “What can I do to prevent risk in the specific country I am traveling to?” and should be applicable to men and women equally.

  9. It is ridiculous that these countries are deemed more dangerous for women by such a popular news organization. We should be encouraging travel and exploration of the unknown for both men and women. Even your statistics show that this fear is misplaced. Awesome read, thanks for posting!

  10. Thank you. I travelled alone and often encountered the strangest reactions – especially by friends and family at home.

  11. you don’t even have to ‘step outside your own home’ to be a victim. hmmm so who should we be controlling here?

  12. Bravo!
    I live in uae, and trust me, I find India safe. It’s an open country where women have the right to slap a man in public if he does anything stupid. If a man stares at me more than what is considered ”safe” (read: 2-3 secs), and if I stare back, I can scare the hell out of him. If I do the same here, I will probably get a smile in return!! Some expatriates here scratch their balls while staring at female joggers in park. if I shout loudly at a eve teaser in India, I’m going to get public support! a mob would stand up for me and start harassing the teasers! can you expect that in London?

    When I went to visit England, i felt unsafe in pubs. Men would eye me only with one intention. Sex. I was alone and not interested. But somehow, men didn’t get that. If this would have happened in India, i could have enraged the entire crowd around me and could even have the guts to bring in the media!

    Traveling in developing countries is safer according to me. Atleast the general public is not ashamed to fight for you in case of any danger! An American would probably close his eyes, if a harassment is seen nearby.
    Watch ‘what would you do’.

  13. HELL YES. Thank you. I moved to Central America last year, and while I’ve faced my fair share of sexual harassment and assault, it’s not because I’m a woman in Central America. It is because I am a woman. That fact alone makes me a target above all else. It is a sad realization that the world is not safe for our precious gender in 2015.

    http://globalfrolic.com/solo-female-travel-and-sexual-assault/

  14. It’s been 15yrs since I travelled internationally. Granted, I was backpacking with a male companion. But even at that, both of us felt ‘safer’ in India, Nepal, Thailand & Europe, than we did in the U.S., our home. I often wondered if it was just because we were foreigners & didn’t notice the cultural cues. I’m basically an overly trusting & optimistic person, perhaps to a fault? Wherever we go, there we are…

  15. Reblogged this on Soul-O-Sista and commented:
    Bravo… I too have traveled to a number of these countries as a single female traveling solo. And I’ve come out unscathed. My most dangerous solo traveling moments happened in The Netherlands and the USA. Yes I believe it can be challenging and far more difficult traveling solo as a single female. But travel brave, have your wits about you and you’ll be ok.

  16. Reblogged this on childinred and commented:
    Yes, indeed- great piece. I had far worse things happen to me as a woman in Western countries than in any of the developing countries I have visited, which is not to say that they don’t happen everywhere. And the worst thing on my list- sad to say, every woman has a list- happened to me in the good old US of A…. inflicted by a well-educated, arrogant white guy.

  17. This is so true. A lot of countries that are considered “3rd-world or developing” countries are being targeted as dangerous places but the reality of it is, as you said, everywhere is dangerous. In my opinion, I am just as likely to be harmed on my way to the grocery store in Florida as I am in New York. I’m just as likely to be assaulted in the United States as I am in France. There aren’t any completely safe countries anywhere especially when gender comes into play. If you’re travelling alone, as a woman, it’s important to know how to protect yourself without limiting yourself because of crazy statistics that are thrown at you. What will happen, will happen but at least there are precautions we can take to feel safer. Staying home where it’s ‘safer’ is not one of them, but hey, to each its own.

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