Safety Concerns for Women Travelers

By and far, the most popular response we hear in regards to our upcoming adventure is concerns for our safety. I have been told we are “crazy” or have a “death wish” numerous times, and been asked “what do your parents think?” more times than a 34 year old woman really should.  I’d like to dispel a few myths related to a woman’s safety in general, how it compares when traveling abroad and to calm members of our nervous audience!

Jen, Sacha and I have all been fortunate enough to rack up a fair bit of travel, and a good bulk of that has been in the developing world. All 3 of us have lived abroad, dealt with culture shock and lived in a culture that is vastly different than our home cultures. We are not naive to the issues we will be facing regarding language, poverty, or gender issues.

Some may call it naive, but I really feel our odds of being physically assaulted as 3 women traveling together through India are less than the odds I face of being a victim of violence in my regular non-traveling life. Here’s why:

Currently I live alone in the top floor of a relatively isolated house. There is a tenant that lives downstairs who would surely sleep through a bombing, much less me being attacked in the event that this were to happen. There are neighbours on either side, but they are too far away to likely hear something that might happen to me inside the house. There is an empty field across the street, and no street lights. There are motion detector lights outside of the house that only go off when you are directly under them. This means that when I leave the house to head to work I step outside into basically pitch darkness and wave my hands around like a lunatic until the motion light turns on so I can see enough to lock the door. As a woman, this scenario does not make me feel safe on many levels, and yet many women are presented with endless scenarios that ruffle their level of safety on a daily basis and they haven’t even left the comfort of their home country.Call me paranoid but when I come home I do a little “security sweep” of the house to make sure I have no unwanted visitors. In the past I have lived in apartments where I would wedge a chair under my bedroom door knob in the event of a break-in. I have an exit plan always. I also carry a rape whistle which I have only ever really needed to use once- thankfully against a pack of stray dogs in Burma, but hey, at least I know it works.

Men often given little regard to where they park, what times are safe to be walking alone, getting into a cab alone, or answering the door when you’re not expecting a visitor. Most women make decisions, daily, by taking their personal safety into consideration. Out of the 3 of us, one of us has been a victim of violence in her own home, in her home country. I have traveled to nearly 30 countries and felt that my safety was threatened the most while living in North America, and not while traveling abroad.

In Canada it is believed that 1 in 17 women is raped in her lifetime. 80% of these assaults happen in the victim’s home. In the US (where I spent a decade living) these statistics where even higher. In the US it is believed that 1 in 6 women have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. These statistics are alarming, and anyone who thinks a woman’s safety is endangered more when she is traveling outside of western countries is clearly naive. It is also important to note that statistics regarding rape and sexual assaults are often under-reported so, in fact, they may be higher than this.

There are very few stats on tourists being assaulted while traveling in India. In the last year there has been significant media attention given to the gang-rape of a Swiss woman bicycling in rural India, a British tourist who jumped out of her hotel window to avoid being attacked and an American woman who was gang-raped while hitch-hiking alone. These are horrific stories and yet they are by no means isolated to India or traveling abroad. These events also happen in our own backyards. The more alarming issue facing India and specifically, women in India, is the issue of violence and rape for Indian women. These events are by far under-reported and it is believed that every 20 minutes a woman in India is raped. That’s 5 women in the time its taken me to write and edit this post (The treatment and issues facing Indian women is something I will touch on in another blog, at a later point).

So here’s what the US state department has to say on the matter: “Sexual Assault in India: Travelers should be aware that there have been reported cases of sexual assault, including rape, of U.S. citizens traveling throughout India. U.S. citizens, particularly women, are cautioned not to travel alone in India. Western women, especially those of African descent, continue to report incidents of verbal and physical harassment by groups of men. Known locally as “Eve-teasing,” these incidents of sexual harassment can be quite frightening. Sexual harassment can occur anytime or anywhere, but most frequently has happened in crowded areas such as in market places, train stations, buses, and public streets. The harassment can range from sexually suggestive or lewd comments to catcalls to outright groping. If you are a woman traveling in India, you are advised to respect local dress and customs. While reported incidences of sexual assault have been isolated, Indian authorities report rape is one of the fastest growing crimes in India. Among large cities, Delhi experienced the highest number of crimes against women. Although most victims have been local residents, recent sexual attacks against female visitors in tourist areas underline the fact that foreign women are at risk and should exercise vigilance.”

“Eve-teasing?” Ever walked past a construction site and experienced “Cat-Calling?” Ever been to a concert where people were packed in and felt unwanted groping? Ever been out to a bar with friends and had your ass grabbed by a stranger? I’ve had the unfortunate displeasure of having all of these things happen numerous times on my own soil. Sadly, it appears than many of the issues facing western women traveling abroad are, in fact, the same issues western women face living in western countries.

So here is what we’re going to do to stay safe and be smart. We will be traveling together the entire time we are doing the Rickshaw Run. We won’t be parting ways and will essentially be tied to each other at the waist. We are intending not to drive at night, if we can at all help it. We will be scouting out safe places to stay and listening to our guts. I am well versed in the art of rape whistling, and we will have a practice session before we start the race. We have looked into taking pepper spray, but this is frowned on by airport security, and I think the chances of us using it on each other accidentally outweigh the benefit of smuggling it in our backpacks. We are going to pack a small police baton which I very much look forward to watching training videos of how best to use this (Click here to watch an Ah-mazing one!). We will likely limit our alcohol related shenanigans to stay as alert as possible. Lastly, and this is going to sound naive….we will focus on the fact that we believe that the majority of the world’s population is good.

Here’s to Safe Travels!!