Solo female travel safety is a huge concern for women travellers. Travelling the world as an independent, solo female traveller is often seen as dangerous, daunting or too risky, but it doesn’t have to be. These expert tips will help you reduce any potential risk and stay safe on the road.
Travelling the world independently is one of the single best things any woman can ever do for themselves. Exploring the endless wonders the world has to offer you is a reward in and of itself, allowing you to see, do and experience things most people will only ever dream of. But it goes far, far deeper than that. The experience of being a female traveller and backpacking around the world independently will absolutely change you for the better. It will make you stronger, more worldly, more self confident, in short it will make you a better person and will empower you like nothing else in the world will.
The problem is that half of the population who are dreaming of setting off on their very own round the world adventure are allowing fear, doubt and insecurity stop them from doing just that.
Women all over the world are denying themselves the opportunity to travel the world because they listen to the half truths, scaremongering and paranoid nonsense that is perpetuated by the mass media, society in general and even other women! I mean what happened to that feisty independence? That empowered gender identity? It is obvious that women are far too weak and defenceless to face what the world throws at them. We all know that it is far too dangerous for a woman to dare to backpack around the world on her own, right?
If you listen to all the uninformed doomsayers and the mass media, you could be forgiven for believing that the world is full of muggers, rapists, thieves, terrorists, pirates and murderers just waiting for all you naive, vulnerable, defenceless women to step out into the big scary world.
You could also be forgiven for thinking that women are more at risk just by the mere fact of their gender. They aren’t. Given the fear mongering and misinformation out there, it’s a surprise anyone goes anywhere.
Of course there are dangers out there, of course women experience the world differently to men, of course women have practical concerns and of course they should take reasonable safety precautions when travelling, those are simple tenets that should be a given, but here’s the big secret …
It is just as safe for a woman to backpack around the world as any man.
Despite what the mass media and your fretting mothers might tell you, thousands of women travel around the world every single day and come back home safe and sound. Bad things do sometimes happen yes, but no more so than they do at home and certainly in very small numbers compared to the incidents of women travelling safely and soundly without any problems. Travelling the world is statistically very safe, and the probability of anything bad happening to you is pretty low.
According to the Office For National Statistics and The Foreign Commonwealth Office for example, the evidence shows that out of the 4 million plus UK citizens who travelled abroad between 2014 and 2015 (the latest specific statistics on consular assistance available), only 19, 244 travellers needed consular assistance worldwide, and that is for a wide range of issues.
To use those same statistics for a specific crime that most women in particular tend to quote as their main fear when talking about becoming a victim, out of 4 million UK travellers in the 2014 – 2015 period, there were just 106 rapes and 152 sexual assaults. Worldwide. I repeat, 106 rapes and 152 sexual assaults, out of over 4 million travellers.
Those are pretty low crime rates by any international standards. This isn’t to say that each and every one of these cases isn’t horrific for the individuals involved, they are terrible crimes and I have every sympathy for those survivors, but it does show travel is on average overwhelmingly very safe.
Bad things can happen to good people anywhere, anytime.
These statistics also don’t say that bad things don’t happen, of course they do, nor do they say that some level of concern isn’t justified, because it is, but not to the levels of fearmongering that are often reached by women and in the media.
Precaution is good. Fear is not.
Risk of course does exist, it just needs to be put into a little bit of perspective.
Dealing with different cultures.
There are many countries around the world with differing cultural, religious and societal paradigms, and there are many societies where men and women are treated or viewed differently than they are in the average western society. This for many women is one of the factors that does play into a heightened sense of fear in women travellers, but it is essential to remember that difference does not automatically make it more dangerous to travel to those places.
There are places that will challenge female travellers on many levels, there are countries that have different paradigms on gender than you have, you may encounter situations that challenge your own political or social belief systems or even make you feel uncomfortable. That does not necessarily make them dangerous. It is really important to make that distinction, because although feeling uncomfortable or challenged is completely understandable, far too often those feelings are conflated to feeling at risk or in danger. That is not the case. In fact being challenged and exploring different cultural viewpoints is one of the reasons to and the best parts of travel!
Dealing with harrasment.
Harassment is perhaps one of the biggest contributors to the heightened levels of fear in women travellers and in many ways does have a detrimental effect on the travel experience for many women. That doesn’t however mean that women are at more risk, or that women face an unparalleled level of danger when they travel.
Harassment is a fact and it does happen. It is horrible, inexcusable and no one should ever have to go through it. It is completely understandable why many women would feel uncomfortable at the prospect – or experience – of being harrassed and is one factor that explains the generally higher levels of fear in women despite the much lower risk of actually becoming a victim of a specific crime or being in actual danger, but it can also not justify the common assertion that women are at more risk when they travel.
It happens to men and women on average equally, but often – at least outwardly – in very different ways, women are less likely than men to be randomly verbally abused with the threat of physical violence for example, but are more likely to encounter a range of sexual orientated harassment. That isn’t to say each gender doesn’t experience the full spectrum too because they do, but some generalisation is necessary.
It also does not happen on the level that is often portrayed either in the media or by others. Harrassment happens yes,no doubt, but if it happened on the scale that is often portrayed no woman would ever be able to go out in public because it would be constant, every minute of every single day. There has to be some level of moderation there because the day to day experience of the majority cannot reflect that.
Yes you may come across a situation where you are harrassed when you travel, but a lot of harrassment, whilst unpleasant, is not necessarily a risk factor or a danger.
The big problem when talking about harassment is that the definition is so far ranging and so open that it includes everything from actually defined crimes such as sexual harassment and interactions that are actually considered a risk factor or a danger to everyday occurrences that are at best an annoyance and even incidents that are misconstrued by ideological dogma that views everything and anything as a full on assault.
There are scales of harassment and they really do have to be viewed as such. Men staring in India for example is often cited by women travellers as something that makes them feel uncomfortable, but this is largely a cultural phenomenon and Indian men often stare at everything, all the time, in large groups, including the big 6″2 guy lumbering around looking a little lost. Uncomfortable? Maybe. A danger? No. Many women also have stories of unwanted advances too, okay that is a little further up the scale but depending on the circumstance isn’t always harassment either, not when it is compared to incidents where those spurned advances are pressed again and again or even further up the scale when they result in threats, stalking or other actions which are specifically and rightly defined as a crime and should be treated as such, in both preparation for and punishment of.
For those times where you will encounter harassment that goes above being able to ignore and move on, there are some things you can do:
- Move toward potential assistance in a public space and ask for assistance without escalating the situation. Seek out an officer of the law or other official if possible, hotel or hostel staff, a family sitting at a restaurant or a bartender even, anyone.
- If you are travelling or on any type of transport then move away as soon as possible, swap places with someone if you can and ask a conductor, driver or crew for assistance.
- Report it officially at the soonest possible opportunity when there is a chance of getting evidence.
Harassment does happen, and unfortunately it is very likely that it will happen to you when travelling just as much as it is likely at home. But it is important to remember that is no reason not to travel, nor is it a reason to be afraid of travel.
Some harassment is absolutely a risk factor and should be treated as such with the safety tips and advice detailed below, but some harassment should not be conflated to that level either and should be treated as just a random encounter with an arsehole. Everyone, regardless of gender or where they are or what they are doing, will come across people like that from time to time, but the absolute majority of people you meet on the road will be awesome.
How female travellers can reduce risk and stay safe abroad.
The trick to keeping yourself safe simply lies in …
Understanding the risks and dangers,
Reducing the risk as much as possible.
That’s it. There is no grand reveal of a big secret here, it really is that simple. There are risks out there, but it is important to remember that they are first of all statistically low and second of all easily managed.
You have to know exactly how to understand the dangers and minimize the risk of course, but that is what this article can help you with. There are many ways in which you can do this. Research is one of the biggest weapons in your arsenal, being aware of the dangers and how to avoid them, or knowing how to deal with them if things do go wrong is one of the best things you can do to prepare. To read how to do this in much greater detail, read here.
Apart from that there are a number of tips and tricks any woman can use when out on the road to reduce the risk of anything negative happening to them and to keep themselves safe.
Confidence is just a natural weapon against people who may potentially want to do you harm or take advantage of you. Acting like you know where you are, what you are doing and showing that you are confident, even if you may not feel like it inside, sets off a huge subconscious alert of ‘don’t mess with me’. Again this applies equally to both genders, but is something that women in particular tend not to do. Predators – and this goes for some low level harassment as much as physical crimes – are in general looking for victims who look and appear weak, it is instinctive, so be the opposite! People who behave and look like targets are generally the ones who become victims, so don’t let this happen to you. Just be confident!
Use your common sense.
Yes, it really is that simple sometimes. Travelling alone can be very safe indeed if you just use your basic common sense. You do it all the time at home so there is no reason why you wouldn’t do it while travelling either. Don’t walk down that dark alley in the middle of the night on your own, don’t accept that lift from the three friendly guys you met in the middle of nowhere and don’t drink so much that you have no control over what you do. I know it can be easy to lower your guard when you are travelling and having fun, and no one will ever tell you not to enjoy yourself (it is your gap year or backpacking trip after all) but simply use your instinct and common sense as a baseline and you will generally be fine. This really isn’t rocket science, and this really is all it can take to keep you safe most of the time.
Stay alert and develop situational awareness.
Again this is something that applies to both genders, but is so important that it is worth mentioning again here. Just be alert and aware of your surroundings, your belongings and the people around you at all times. Don’t take your eye of your pack or any of your belongings, even if you do think it is absolutely safe. Be aware of the people approaching you and be mindful of the common scams or diversion tactics of pickpockets or thieves. When a stranger approaches you and starts chatting, odds are they may simply be curious about you and where you are from (in many parts of the world it is still highly unusual to see a woman travelling alone and the vast majority of time it may just be someone wanting to chat and learn about you), but there is also a smaller chance that they may also be a tout leading up to one of the many scams they use to separate you from your cash or someone wanting to do you harm. Be friendly, but be aware too.
Of course it is important to remember that you shouldn’t take this to the extremes of being overly paranoid and thinking everyone is out to get you, where even the most innocent of hello’s from a friendly traveller invokes screams of hysteria and cries of ‘rapist, mugger, murderer!’ Before you empty a can of pepper spray in the guys face and throw your pack at him for good measure before running off in hysterics. The poor guy just said hello for crying out loud! But a healthy dose of awareness, providing you don’t let it get to that paranoid level, can be a good thing.
Lower your profile.
Lowering your profile is a major part of keeping yourself safe. It is just as true for men too, as are the majority of these tips in fact, but applied specifically to women this basically can be translated into be selective in what you wear, dressing according to local custom and being respectful to local culture and norms in your behaviour. Melt into the crowd, don’t stand out and you won’t make yourself a target.
Wearing a bikini top and shorts may be appropriate in Malibu for example where a lot of women will be wearing the same, but it just isn’t appropriate walking around Haft-e Tir Square in Tehran or Cairo in Egypt.
Most of the problems women face when backpacking stem from drawing unwanted attention to themselves by wearing inappropriate clothing and not conforming to cultural norms.
Simple, comfortable clothing such as cargo pants or shorts and a T shirt that covers the shoulders and is not too revealing is more than adequate in most situations, with the added precaution of a shawl or sarong so you can cover up your head, lower legs or any exposed skin if you visit a mosque or if the situation requires it. Visiting any religious building or site in many countries will sometimes require you to dress in a certain way, whether that is removing shoes, wearing a specific sarong, covering up exposed skin or covering your hair or any number of other traditional norms. This is an issue for men too, although often to a much lesser extent, and is often an issue of respect for religion and customs as it is about gender. It is my experience that people are generally very welcoming and will excuse the odd faux pax such as forgetting to take your shoes off in places of worship (someone will usually politely let you know if you have forgotten), providing that an effort is being made to respect local culture.
Don’t draw attention to yourself.
Along the same lines as lowering your profile, not drawing attention to yourself will mean you are much less likely to be singled out as a target for trouble.
Unfortunately there are sometimes some things that you cannot change about your appearance and you will always stand out to some extent. If you are tall, white and blonde for example, you will get attention in parts of Asia, South or Central America and the Middle East purely because you are different from the norm. Most of the time this goes no further than stares or long looks, and whilst this can sometimes be a little disconcerting, is generally nothing to worry about.
There are some things you can do however, and again, most of this goes back to basic common sense. Even if you normally look like a jewellery shop has exploded all over you at home, it isn’t exactly the smartest idea to wear all your bling on your travels. Just leave all the fancy rings and bracelets at home. Don’t be flashing huge wads of cash about or walk around carrying a massive £3000 DSLR camera around your neck while staring at the latest iPad. You may as well just be wearing a big neon sign that says ‘I’m a target!’
But not drawing attention to yourself can go far beyond appearance and can also mean moderating your behaviour. This doesn’t even mean you have to conform to local standards or expectations of women, just be polite and respectful. For example, don’t drink too much and get loud, obnoxious and abusive, especially if you are in a traditionally conservative, polite country, you’ll just attract a lot of attention you don’t want.
Be sensitive to local custom and tradition.
Understanding the place you are in and the culture you are visiting is essential when backpacking so you can be sensitive to local customs and manners. For women it does take on a slightly added dimension as there are many places, particularly but not limited to in the Middle East, where social norms and conventions demand certain considerations from women, and for backpackers it is wise to know what they are and make concessions to them.
Many Muslim countries for example, especially those where Sharia law operates more stringently, are very conservative and regimented when it comes to women and this can manifest itself for backpackers in terms of what you choose to wear and how you behave. There will never be an expectation for you to cover up completely the way some Muslim women do, especially if you are not a Muslim, you are a guest there after all. But if you show respect to your host country by making some concessions to modesty then you will lower your profile and divert attention away from yourself as well as being able to delve deeper into the heart and culture of the places you are visiting. If you wear wildly inappropriate clothing, such as the oblivious women who walk off the cruise ships in Egypt wearing hot pants and bikini tops in a predominantly Muslim country, then you will draw unwanted attention to yourself. The further away from touristy areas you get, the more attention inappropriate dress will draw to you.
Also be aware of cultural differences when travelling. Catching a guy’s eye and giving a friendly smile back home may be considered completely innocent and friendly, but can often be interpreted as a sexual advance in the Middle East for example. If you are unsure it can often be a good idea to look around and follow the social cues of the local women.
This isn’t to say that you should completely deny yourself the opportunities to meet or interact with locals. If you do that out of fear or an over exaggerated sense of personal safety then you would be doing yourself a huge disservice and will deny yourself one of the best things about backpacking. So again, be reasonably cautious, but not paranoid.
Wear a wedding ring.
Seriously I know this sounds strange but even if you are not married wear a cheap ring on your wedding finger. I know this is controversial and I agree completely on it’s own it won’t do anything. But it can be a useful tool when used in context and it works as part of an overall strategy of blending in, .
And before anyone starts this doesn’t have anything to do with feminism or the role of women in society, it has everything to do with using it as part of your disguise, a prop, just to blend in.
Theoretically if you are in a bar or a situation where guys may come up to you, flirt with you or give you any kind of attention you don’t want (or if you do want it of course the ring is easily removable), especially in cultures where machismo is prevalent and attention can be persistent, a simple flash of the wedding ring should make many guys making advances politely move on to someone else.
Of course it is important to remember that on it’s own wearing a wedding ring isn’t going to be a magic bullet to deflect any and all unwanted attention. This is again all about lowering your profile and deflecting any unwanted or potentially unwanted attention away from yourself. Consider it a bit of camouflage, a deflection technique. In and of itself it won’t do much, but used in conjunction with other tools such as sensible dress to match a countries culture or the correct body language to convey the message you want, then it can be one valuable tool in your box of tricks.
Remember that you can pre book from time to time.
The accepted independent traveller norm is to just turn up, find a place to stay that suits your taste and budget, and barter for a room. This is absolutely the best way to travel the majority of the time, it is cheaper, easier and more flexible. You will find much nicer places to stay, and it is completely safe for anyone – man or woman – to do.
There are occasional exceptions to this rule though. When you are just arriving in a new country for example, it can be a good idea to pre book a nice private room for a few nights as you rest, acclimatize and get used to your new surroundings. The same is true for those times when you are travelling when there is a religious festival or event and you know everywhere will be booked up, or you simply can’t avoid arriving in a new town or city late at night. The last thing you want to be doing is wondering about a strange new place in the dark when most businesses are shut and not many people are about. Just get to an internet cafe or somewhere with wifi before you leave your previous destination and book one night somewhere. It doesn’t even have to be fancy. You can easily find somewhere else the next day if you like. As well as the obvious safety applications this also gives you a lot of peace of mind, and that can be just as important as self confidence.
Take advantage of gendered transport options.
In many countries across the world you will find that there are public transport options that are for women only. Generally these take the form of female only carriages or seat sections just for women on selected trains and buses, but these can be found right across Japan, Malaysia, India, Egypt, Brazil, Mexico and parts of Indonesia and the Philippines amongst many others. They are not universal however, some parts of each country may have them and some may not, and there are a whole range of social, legal, moral and ethical debates about their usefulness and existence in the first place that I will not get into here. But they are technically designed to stop harassment and make women feel safe on public transport, so where they are available – if you feel the need to use them and you have the option to do so – then it is not going to do you any harm.
I really hope these simple tips and encouragement have eased your fears a little and given you the confidence to go backpacking, with reasonable common sense precautions you will reduce a lot of the already low amount of risk to your personal safety and security. Backpacking the world will be one of the best times of your life, and you should not let simple fear of what may or may not happen stop you from discovering not only what is out there, but who you are as a woman too.
So go, grab your backpack and get that plane ticket! Explore. Dream. Discover!
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