Is it REALLY more dangerous for a woman to go travelling around the world than a man?

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I recently wrote an article on solo female backpacker safety http://bemusedbackpacker.com/2013/11/11/solo-female-backpacker-safety-tips/ in response to a lot of specific questions and fears from women who were worried about going travelling alone.

I also wrote another article http://bemusedbackpacker.com/2013/11/18/solo-male-backpacker-safety-tips/ addressing specifically male concerns. The point to this one was to show that there are a few practical differences, and men and women do have slightly different cultural practicalities to consider, yet the safety concerns were absolutely no different than they were for a woman. Yet I almost instantly got a few emails stating that of course it is more dangerous for a woman to travel alone and even that men don’t have safety concerns when travelling (?!?!?!)

Absolute rubbish.

There really is no difference in overall levels of danger when travelling between men and women, and there is very little difference in the practical safety steps men and women can take.

What do you all think? Let’s get some good (friendly) debate going on here!

Michael Huxley 18/11/13    Travel health and safety Link Report

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I love Becca’s answer, personally. Whether or not the statistics indicate that women are more likely to be preyed upon when traveling alone, there’s a lot of value in examining the politics and impact of the belief that they are. First, what does it say about our perceptions of where we’re traveling? A lot of the answers here cite examples from the Middle East and Northern Africa, regions that are notorious in the West for being highly misogynistic, but there are plenty of far-less politicized areas- a few that I’ve lived in in the U.S., for example- that are just as unsafe for a solo woman, based on stats alone. We don’t hear about this as much, not on a national level and certainly not on a global level. Not only do the gender politics of a given region become reflected in how we make this judgment call, but our own preconceptions (and misconceptions) become involved as well.

Second, I think it’s always worth asking what the function of gender-based safety concerns is. Sexual harassment and sexual assault are certainly part of a larger pattern of dehumanization that tends to go hand-in-hand with the subordination of any given population (women, all too often), and yet we tend to think of this as being the only crime that a traveler may be worried about. Part of it is the very real impact that sexual assault crimes can have on their victims, an impact that has been minimized or even dismissed for a lot of people (and continues to be, sadly). But part of it, too, for women in chastity-focused cultures, is this idea that sexual assault is THE worst thing that can happen to you and therefore you should avoid it at all costs (in the U.S., this narrative is constantly in play, even though you’re most likely to be assaulted by someone you know, in a private residence). I don’t say that to minimize how sexual assault affects individuals, but to say that sexual assault has also become the Big Bad Boogeyman of women’s public lives. I think very few potential traumas (i.e. car accidents, robberies) have created the same culture of avoidance as can be seen in the narrative that states that women need to be safe, no matter what it takes, from sexual assault.

Finally, what Becca’s answer and my own thoughts lead me to think is that questions like these, that look at violence and fear for travelers, can and should prompt us to ask not what we can do to avoid related crimes, but what we can do to stop them from happening in the first place. I don’t mean this as a “you’re responsible for stopping someone who’s trying to hurt you” question; I mean it as a question of systemic change. In a perfect world, we should never have to ask if a given area is safer for one type of person or another. In a perfect world, preexisting power structures that dehumanize members of a given social group should never prevent someone from traveling to a part of the world that they want to visit. We may never entirely rid ourselves of violence, but we can make a dent in it. This is something I address frequently in my “Going Forward” column at Go Girl Magazine (http://www.travelgogirl.com/blog/category/columns/going-forward/), which specifically discusses women’s travel and, often, women’s solo travel. But, back to my point, what can we do to change systems of violent inequality so that we don’t have to ask questions like these?

ericalarue 29/11/13    Link Report

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You are absolutely right about the different levels, that is an excellent point! I think there is a big issue around lumping all the different levels (from low level shrug it off comments right up to sexual assault or even rape) into one category and declaring somewhere instantly dangerous. I think that is not only wrong but a very ‘dangerous’ paradigm in and of itself.

Michael Huxley 12/12/13    Link Report

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Excellent point on low-level harassment – I totally agree!

Lottie Gross 02/12/13    Link Report

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Excellent points. Changing societal norms are far beyond my scope I’m afraid. The fact that they exist and why the exist are heavy discussions in their own right.

But you make another excellent point that travellers face a range of dangers when backpacking, from theft, to being run over by a suicidal tuk tuk driver, but again and again (and some proof of this has been evidenced in these replies) it is the threat of ONE type of crime in particular, ie sexual harrassment/assault/rape, that many women focus on when they declare how much more dangerous it is for them to travel.

Michael Huxley 01/12/13    Link Report

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I wonder, in considering sexual assault / harassment, if one reason it’s so widely considered as a danger is that it has so many levels? Or in other words, in some places (especially as an unaccompanied woman) you get low-level harassment that constantly reminds you of the greater possible danger.

Thinking of something like violent attack, you don’t tend to find that you get a few pokes or thumps every day, or some violent language thrown your way which reminds you that a real attack could come at any point. With sexual harassment, though, it’s really not unusual for a woman to experience on a day to day level a few unwanted touches, and definitely a few comments, which put the fear of assault into their minds. I say this not so much from travel experiences (though over a year in Japan, I learned that people will often say shocking stuff about you when they think you don’t understand!) as my everyday life in London, not really a place that’s demonised as much as many others. Not a week goes by without some sort of incident.

As Erica pointed out, sometimes the places we’re told are dangerous are actually comparable to the places we experience every day… So my main worry is that, in demonising certain places we may unwittingly make that ‘solo female backpacker’ think “oh, I’m in America, I’m safe now”!

Rebecca Hallett 02/12/13    Link Report

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Slightly tangentially to this topic, I’d argue that the various dangers faced by different genders when travelling is a good way to learn about that region’s gender politics. There are some areas of the world, I’m sure, where women travelling alone face much greater dangers than men travelling alone – and vice versa. There are also areas where you’re much safer travelling as a pair, if only for the assumption that you’re married… Either way, it’s interesting!

I think that in a world where men and women were actually treated as equal, across the board, the dangers would be pretty much the same. As it is now, stereotyped gender roles and different gender politics in different countries mean that both men and women need to educate themselves before travelling – you may find that, as a woman, you’re more likely to face sexual harassment in the country you’re visiting, or as a man you’re seen as a more viable target for aggression or attack. As a side note to this, by the way, I worry about this dichotomy that’s been presented a few times (not by me, too) between sexual and violent crime. Rape can be an extremely, extremely violent crime…

Getting back to the point, though, I think it’s fair to say that globally women are the more oppressed gender at the moment. I don’t have the data to say whether this means they face more danger overall when travelling, but I really do think it can cause a LOT more annoyance, and also a greater background awareness of your gender. Perhaps that latter point is one of the problems you’re getting at – by always being told they’re ‘in more danger’, whether travelling or at home, women are forced to be constantly aware of any dangers around them. And it’s exhausting, and can really affect some otherwise lovely trips! So I think it depends how you define ‘danger’, as I think there’s a strong case that a woman’s gender will be presented to her as a reason for something which could ruin her trip / make her very uneasy / result in a dangerous situation. I could cite personal examples, but I’d rather not overshare!

Also, how do trans people fit into this? I think it’s fair to say that someone who physically presents (or appears to present) an ambiguous gender identity is much, much more likely to face a whole range of dangers while travelling.

Rebecca Hallett 27/11/13    Link Report

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Good question about trans-gender – I’ve never even considered that side of things! I wonder if anyone on our Community can shed any insight…

Lottie Gross 29/11/13    Link Report

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Excellent response!

First of all I would like to address one point, no dichotomy has been expressed between sexual and violent crime. If it has been perceived in that way it has been unintentional. For the purpose of discussion, the descriptions of sexual assault, rape and violent assault should be taken in the way they are described in law. Of course rape is a violent crime and violence is used, but it is classified and treated very separately from violent assault.

Now as for your main point as women being oppressed on a larger global scale than men, that I am not in any disagreement with either. I also completely agree that it can create more practical considerations, annoyances and problems for women who travel in those areas. What I dispute however is the way many people, women in particular, create a paradigm that those issues automatically result in it being more dangerous for a woman to travel than a man. You are right in that the definition of danger is important, but even at its most basic and uncomplicated meaning, ie the risk to personal safety and security, many of those issues do not apply.

It is the PERCEIVED risk of danger that is the issue, and there is a lot of evidence (including the British Crime Survey as just one example) that suggests women are far more likely to be afraid of becoming the victim of crime, especially violent crime, whilst men are far more likely to become the actual victims (but have a lesser fear of it).

So basically what I am saying is, just because women have a much higher perception of how dangerous it is to travel that does not mean that it actually IS more dangerous for a woman to travel.

As for your final point about trans people, that is beyond the scope of my knowledge base I’m afraid but it is a very interesting point! I’d love to hear some perspectives on that myself.

Michael Huxley 01/12/13    Link Report

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There does seem to be this insidious thought that as long as a woman has ‘common sense’ then she will avoid the danger of sexual harassment; sort of implies that when it all goes wrong it is her fault?

I suppose it was ‘my fault’ that I dared to travel but, I can verify that I was covered from neck to ankle in long, black clothing and was utterly respectful of the community that I was in. However, this was not enough to stop continual gropes in broad daylight and in busy market places, some ranging on the downright painful.

Was this dangerous in that I felt my life was threatened? No, of course not.

But, I have to admit that as far as this particular danger of sexual assault is concerned then, I would say that sometimes it is more dangerous to travel as a woman in comparison to travelling as a man.

Raquel P. 24/11/13    Link Report

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No more insidious than the thought that women are automatically in danger by travelling or men are automatically safe.

First of all ‘common sense’ is just one of many tools women (and men) should use to keep themselves safe.

I’m sorry you had that experience – truly I am – but that does not mean EVERY woman will, and that is an insidious thought too. I know many women who have travelled through many markets in many parts of the world (yes including the middle east and India for example) who have had no problems at all.

Yes in certain parts of the world such as Iran (the middle east has wildly varying views on women) then womens status in society is different and yes this can lead to some cultural problems and practicalities, but this does not mean women are automatically in danger.

You can’t just pick ONE particular problem, such as sexual assault, and declare that because women are more likely to become a victim of that, then that makes female travel more dangerous. It doesn’t. Men are significantly more likely to become the victim of a violent assault, does that make MALE travel more dangerous? No.

Michael Huxley 25/11/13    Link Report

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I have made no quantum leap between me having an experience and then stating that therefore ALL women will have this experience.

I was merely picking up on the poor language of ‘common sense’ that is being used in this thread as a means to blame those who are the victim of another’s behaviour.

Raquel P. 30/11/13    Link Report

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The reason Women are afraid to go travelling is because of all this rubbish about the world being ‘unsafe’ for women. I am a female, who has listened to many stories of women who have been raped, robbed and even killed on their travels, I have also read more stories of this happening in the comfort of their own home and local area. If you have a good look on the internet also, there are plenty of stories of males being raped, robbed and killed (sorry to put it so bluntly). This whole idea that women can’t travel safely on their own stems from hundreds of years of women being portrayed as ‘the weaker gender’, still to this day women are usually paid less, we can’t carry anything heavy, and so on…The world is as safe as you make it, yes bad things happen to everyone, including males, you are as wise and brave as you want to be. I understand that even someone with common sense and years of travel experience under her belt can come across a dangerous situation and be unable to do anything about it, but so can a male. If we think we can’t travel because of all these dangers, we might as well stay at home forever knitting blankets. (nothing against knitting, I quite enjoy it).

GlobalMimi 25/11/13    Link Report

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Absolutely well said!! I completely agree.

This is why I hate the term solo female backpacker, precisely because it portrays that gender stereotype. I even wrote an article about it here in the Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/michael-huxley/solo-female-traveller_b_4296369.html

Michael Huxley 25/11/13    Link Report

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Bamboo and Laura Pucik, YES! Exactly!

Yes there are different challenges and different experiences for each gender, but as you very rightly say Laura that does not automatically make female travel more dangerous, and your point about the macho stance and the lack of focus on male safety travel leading to a sense of complacency (and therefore a greater risk) is an excellent one and I completely agree. Almost nothing is written about the specific stressors and issues men face. The same is true in reverse, with the absolute focus on female safety tips and the inclusive gender identity of ‘solo female backpacker’ creating a far greater fear of potential risk in women.

Michael Huxley 21/11/13    Link Report

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What about using hitch hiking as a bench mark! Is it safer for men? absolutely! I’d argue that women are just as in danger of theft, violence etc but have the added threat of sexual assault!

Mary Allen 25/11/13    Link Report

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And why not use violent assault as a benchmark where men are statistically significantly more likely to become victims? Why not use any of the plethora of crimes where men are more likely to become victims?

Yes women may have a higher chance of becoming the victim of sexual assault – just one of many types of crime – BUT there are two very important points you are forgetting, first there are many, many types of crime not just sexual assault, and two, statistically the chances of becoming a victim are still extremely low, especially if basic safety precautions are taken. The vast, vast majority of women, and men, come back extremely safely from their travels.

Michael Huxley 25/11/13    Link Report

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Sorry I think there are more issues for women. Although I’m female and it might not be politically correct to say so, how many men get harassed when traveling? Especially when traveling in the Middle East or more traditional countries women have to take into account other aspects which men don’t like modesty and the “norms” of whether it is acceptable for them to shake hands with a male. For criminals women are easier prey.

Lily 18/11/13    Link Report

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Lilly I completely disagree.

‘Issues’ is a very broad term, and I agree that women have certain cultural considerations that men do not, just as men have cultural considerations women do not (I don’t suppose you have been shooed off a train for accidentally getting in the wrong carraige for your gender for example) but by and large they are not in any way SAFETY issues. They are practical considerations yes, but they don’t necessarily translate into women automatically being in more danger.

Now, you say women are easier prey. In some respects yes (which can be counteracted with reasonable common sense precautions), but not all, Men for example are significantly statistically much more likely to become the victims of a violent crime or be targetted for those crimes, even though women have a much higher perceived fear of becoming a victim. (I wrote my dissertation for my first degree on this, or you can check the BCS over the last twenty years if you want evidence.) Certain crimes, such as sexual assault, women are more at risk, just as men are targeted for specific crimes (date rape robbery, certain scams etc). Overall, there really is not much -if any – difference between the two genders when we are talking about staying safe abroad.

Both genders need to take reasonable, common sense safety precautions, and yes I agree that there are minor gender based differences in these, but on the whole they are generally the same.But BOTH genders are equally as safe when travelling the world as the other.

Michael Huxley 18/11/13    Link Report

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It is impossible to generalise about safety when “travelling the world” and it is for exactly this reason the FCO gives specific advice for men and women planning to visit different countries or territories:

https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice

The reason that government agencies such as the FCO and the US Department of State offer specific travel advice to women is that there are very real threats that women need to be aware of when travelling alone. They aren’t meant to scare, but to inform.

Rachel Mills 19/11/13    Link Report

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Rachel excellent point I absolutely agree that safety advice should be tailored to specific destinations. Some are safer than others and some have different issues etc.

However I disagree that you can’t generalise. There ARE general safety and security issues that apply everywhere.

The reason that the FCO and others release those statements is because of a heightened fear of percieved risk.

Of course there are safety and security concerns that affect women. Just as there are safety and security concerns that affect men.

It is important to recognise ALL these risks, but it is even more important to recognise that they can all for the most part be minimised by research, knowledge and reasonable common sense safety precautions.

My point is that it is wrong to assume that women are automatically in more danger just because they are women, and men by default have no safety or security concerns just because they are men. (I have heard this on more than one occassion.)

Both have safety concerns, mostly the same but a few gender specific, but with the right preparation and knowledge, it is safe to travel around the world for either gender.

Michael Huxley 19/11/13    Link Report

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I think men can be just as vulnerable as women when travelling. As a woman my main concern would be sexual harassement but this doesn’t make travelling more dangerous for women. I think it’s a lot to do with common sense. In general I think women are more careful and take more precautions which make things safer for them. A solo woman traveller gets advice about travelling alone etc. whereas we don’t see men looking for the same kind of advice as often as women. I believe there are common areas where both men and women are vulnerable when travelling and there are different concerns for each.

bamboo 20/11/13    Link Report

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Ah, the age old question. Are women really in any more danger than a man when traveling alone?

I am a feminist, and as such believe men and women to be equal and equally capable to handle the many dangers that come with travel. I am also a realist, and (being very aware of how the world works) know that in some places I do face different hardships than men. That being said, I don’t think that means I am in any more danger than a guy would be.

Yes, traveling as a single woman in a North African or Middle Eastern countries places different stressors on me than a man, but that doesn’t mean it’s any more dangerous. Again, just different. A guy probably doesn’t have to worry about being accosted on a Subway train (happened to me in Turkey), but he is in just as much danger of being mugged or assaulted or kidnapped if he’s not smart about his surroundings.

In fact, if anything traveling as a woman alone forces me to be more diligent about my surroundings and situations I find myself in, therefore making me more prone to avoid danger. I’ve traveled with some men in the past who are completely oblivious because they have this machismo ideal that they are untouchable, and they put themselves in way more danger, so this idea that solo male travelers are safer than women is detrimental to both parties.

Traveling in a foreign country can be dangerous. In some parts of the world, it just is. There’s no avoiding it. Here in Senegal the last two attacks I’ve heard about have been muggings at knife point of COUPLES, not individuals, one at night (someone opened their UNLOCKED car door in traffic and grabbed the ladies purse and stabbed the guys hand when he tried to intervene) and one in broad daylight (11am, walking down the road). Being with another person, being with a MAN, didn’t make them any safer or more immune to the dangers that come with life out here. You just take the precautions you know to take and try to live smart.

Laura Pucik 20/11/13    Link Report

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Great arguments so far. As a female (and sometimes solo) traveller, I do choose my travel destinations bearing safety in mind. That being said, personally, I know of more cases where male travellers were robbed or had any safety issues when travelling than women. Maybe yes, women tend to be more aware of the dangers and plan ahead while some men adopted a more relaxed posture. Living in a tourist city myself, I often see men sporting their wallets on their back pockets (still!) and just strolling by oblivious of what is going on around them. Plus, more often than not (though I think this is slowly changing), men also carry more expensive items such as high-range cameras, thus making them very attractive to thieves. Even though women have to be more careful in certain places, usually it’s not that different from what they face back home. I mean, even here I know it’s best to avoid certain areas of my city at night or to adopt certain safety measures on a daily basis. It’s a question of common sense, and this also applies to my travels.

Isabel Ferreira 22/11/13    Link Report

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Yes there are more things to consider as a female solo traveler with regards to safety. On the other hand, I have often found locals very helpful and looked out for me as a solo female foreigner. As much as there may be a perceived weakness of solo females, there is almost an added protection from the locals who are also aware of this and definitely have helped me out when they may not have done with a solo male or definitely not a group.

JenE 29/11/13    Link Report

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That is a very good point, the instances of all female groups in India that are set up for the protection of women or the all female carriages and public transport in many countries are institutionalized examples of this too.

Michael Huxley 01/12/13    Link Report

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