Real Safety Information for Women

I love experiencing new cultures, trying new activities, tasting new food, people-watching and having chance encounters with locals. I enjoy getting out of my routine life and expanding my world-view. It is enriching and fun. Venturing out is good, but it is important to be prepared for the unexpected. The analogy is rock climbing with ropes.

Vego, Spain

Vego, Spain

We believe all women have the right to be safe in their homes and anywhere else. Sadly however, women are at risk of harassment, sexual assault, rape, abuse and murder, even in own home country. While traveling in a foreign country, this danger can be increased because you are unlikely to understand cultural differences in communication. Just because you are on vacation, you cannot assume you are immune from dangers.Whether traveling alone, in a group, or with a significant other, it is prudent to assume that your safety and well-being is your responsibility. Knowing how to read the situation around you, and what steps to take to protect yourself gives you the freedom to travel to extraordinary places. What follows are the basics for having safe travels. This works in your home country, too.

 True story: I spent a fall day in Vigo, Spain. In a park at the top of a hill above the harbor is a huge, statue of Jesus. On the way to climbing the hill, I crossed a plaza. A middle-aged woman who was missing many teeth and wearing tattered clothes hurried up to me speaking Spanish. Fearing she might be setting me up for being pick pocketed, I kept my distance. I even backed up when she came too close. I checked around the plaza to see if she had a partner, but I saw no one else. My high school Spanish was too rusty for me to understand much, but I was able, in Spanish, to ask her pardon and say that I did not understand. She kept talking to me in Spanish, but slowed down and started pantomiming that there were drug dealers in the park near the statue on the hill. I was relieved and grateful for her information and thanked her. My traveling companions and I climbed the hill, keeping an eye on the drug dealers. It goes to show how tricky it can be to read the cultural cues. I am still touched by the woman’s concern for us.

Here are 12 tips on how to go to cool places while being smart and safe.

1. Situation Awareness: The single most important thing you can do is to understand the situation, evaluate the environment you are in and react appropriately. This is called situation awareness. Train yourself to know your environment, and how it factors into your potential decisions regarding your own well being. Pay attention and know what is going on around you. Know who is around you and what are they doing. For example, you are walking down a street with a building next to the narrow sidewalk on one side and the street is adjacent on the other, your path is constricted. If something or someone comes towards you, you need to consider your options.

DSCN0023Situations change and sometimes quickly. In a foreign country assessing the situation can be tricky due to language and cultural differences, so how can you tell if things start going bad? Keep an eye on what the locals are doing, especially the local women. Take your cue from them. If they suddenly move to a different place, or leave, go with the women. They likely understand that the situation changed in an unsafe way. Also, if you begin to feel uncomfortable, or the little hairs on your neck begin to stand up, trust your feelings. Leave and go to a safe place.

2. Be purposeful. Predators choose people for victims who look or act weak, uncertain, lost, dreamy, or distracted. Instead, look and act like you know what you are doing. Stand erect with your feet apart and walk with your head held high. Act like you know exactly where you are going. Watch what is going on around you and look people straight in the eye. (Predators are not expecting you to look directly at them because they are counting on surprising their victims.)

If you are ever concerned about the area that you are in, do not talk on a cell phone, text message, listen to music while walking or be distracted. Know your route and keep to it. If you get lost–and who doesn’t when on travel–go into a shop where there is a woman. Study your map in there or ask directions from her. Do not pull out your map on the street or in a plaza.

3. Trust your intuition. If you feel uneasy about someone, even a co-worker, trust your intuition. Keep your distance, leave as soon as possible and make sure there are other people around you. If you are scared, get away. Go to a lighted place and where there are other people. Make sure there are other women nearby. Don’t let the person get you alone. Do not get into a car, taxi or bus with them.  Do not go any place where you are isolated or alone with them.

Feeling tired, jet lagged, hungry or scared may add to your uncertainty about how to handle a situation. Go to a safe place, like your hotel or hostel, a restaurant or store where there are women. In that safe place, you can give yourself time to plan what you want to do and how you want to do it.

4. Escape. If someone ever touches you when you don’t want to be touched, yell loudly, scream, make a scene, and if possible run away to a place where other people are. Do not hesitate to kick him hard in the groin or poke him in the eye to get away. Do not stop yelling and screaming. Do not be polite. Do not freeze. Act! Many women are saved because they made a scene. If the attacker wants your purse or backpack, throw it in one direction and run in another direction toward light and other people. Your safety is important, not your stuff.

Shoes. To escape, what shoes should you wear? High heels? Stilettos? Wispy-strapped sandals? Wedgies? Platforms? I look totally fabulous in all these styles, but honestly, I can’t run in them. Can you? If you are going to a fancy shoe type event, take your fancy shoes in a bag and put them on there. On the street, always wear shoes that you can run or fight in.

5. Fight! Most attackers are looking for easy targets and are not looking for a fight. So fight. Use anything to hurt the attacker. If someone threatens or attacks you, you have the right and the responsibility to protect yourself by fighting. Your elbows are perfect weapons, as are your knees, feet, fingers and teeth. You can even use those spike heels you are carrying. Bite him and/or poke his eyes. Use anything within reach as a weapon, like your keys. Fight as if your life depends on it because it may.

6. Warning signs of a sexual predator. I have found that identifying a situation that may be unsafe is sometimes confusing or difficult. Often people with bad intentions are overly kind or helpful in order to build a sense of security, and this can be confusing. There are a few things to look out for that can be early warning signs of a predator:

  • You feel uneasy. Always trust this feeling, even if you feel silly acting on it. It’s better to feel silly than to have to figure out how to get out of a tough situation.
  • They are overly kind or helpful. Oftentimes this can take the form of suggesting that the two of you have an alliance or bond that is stronger than it actually is. This can be a “two against the world” attitude that makes it feel like you are on the same side.
  • They want to take you places. Just don’t go. You can always get information about neat places to visit and go later with a tour or a small group. It is important to get away from anyone who urgently wants you to go with them.
  • Touching. It has been my experience that men who are looking for something are often are very interested in touching, guiding or steering women. A good guideline for traveling: strangers may never touch you.

7. Self-defense course. Take a self-defense course. Be sure the course includes practice assaults so you have a chance to repeatedly practice what you learn in the classes. The course you select should be a self defense course, not just a martial arts class. Model Mugging has done a good job training many women.

8. Alcohol and drugs. If you cede control of yourself to anyone or anything else, you make yourself vulnerable to all manner of bad if not dangerous things.

Partying: Don’t drink a lot of alcohol. Getting drunk means you are not in control of yourself; and you have made yourself unnecessarily vulnerable. Alcohol interferes with judgement and situation awareness.

Keep an eye on your drink. If you are drinking, keep your drink in your hand so no one can add anything to your glass. Rufies are a category of drug that when added to your drink, renders you helpless (date rape drugs, etc.) If you leave the table, carry your drink with you. Yes, this includes the bathroom. If someone buys you a drink, don’t drink it unless you can watch it being made and delivered to your hand.

True Story: After having one drink, a male friend traveling in Thailand, said the effects of the alcohol were much stronger than what one ought to have felt. Realizing the drink was drugged, my friend stumbled back to the hotel, and locked and barricaded the door. Upon awakening the next morning, he was safe though suffered from a very painful hangover. Drugging drinks is done to women and men.

9. Hotel. Whenever you are returning to your hotel or hostel, make sure that you are aware of your surroundings and who is paying attention to you. It is a good idea for you to keep the information about where you are staying private. You don’t want someone following you back to your room. If you are concerned about a person, do not get into the elevator with him. Use an excuse to stay in the hotel lobby until the other person leaves. Look at brochures, a picture on the wall, or talk to the hotel clerk on duty. Or just wait for the next elevator. You can always ask the staff at the hotel for help, as well. If you are traveling by yourself, do not use the stairway. It is too isolated.

Be sure to close and lock your hotel room door when you are inside the room and when you leave. Predators may be able to push open doors if they are not securely shut and locked. Never open your hotel room door unless you know who is there.

10. Pepper spray and mace. The purpose of these chemicals is to slow down the attacker so you can escape. The spray may not incapacitate the predator, but may give you needed seconds to get away. Many women carry one or the other in their handbags or backpacks. Keep in mind, though, that some places prohibit pepper spray and mace, so check your destinations rules on this. Some brands come in stylish containers that are easy to hold in your hand. Yes, stylish pepper spray dispensers! Other little canisters can be attached to your key chain. Be sure to practice seeing how they spray so you can use them effectively.

My reluctance to suggest these tools is because they might give you a false sense of security. If you choose to carry one of these products, keep in mind that they are tools to be used in addition to the other tips listed.

11. Cell phone. Make sure you carry a cell phone when you travel. Even if you travel with others, it is essential for a woman to carry her own cell phone. Be sure to put emergency phone numbers in it. For more on this, see Equipment Checklist.

12. Your Country’s embassy. Any time you are traveling by yourself, register with your embassy in the destination country. If you are in trouble, you can call or visit your country’s embassy. In fact, put its phone number in your speed dial or as one of the numbers in your Favorites category on your cell phone.

Your embassy helps you with emergencies. The staff there and at consulates work with crime victims and help deal with local police and medical systems. And they will stay in touch with your family members back home.

In your home country, you may be used to the police helping you. Police in your vacation destination, however, may be unhelpful or corrupt. Countries with Islamic law can view sexual assaults and rape as “sex outside of marriage,” which are illegal acts.

True story: In Dubai, UAE, a place known for business trips and luxury travel, has Islamic law. A woman from Norway on a business trip was raped by a co-worker. She called the local police expecting help. Instead she was convicted of sexual relations outside of marriage. She was sentenced to 16 months in prison. Due to international publicity and her country’s diplomatic interventions, the UAE pardoned her in July 2012.

In a case like this, or if you are in trouble, call your country’s embassy. They are there to help you.

Disclaimer and weasel words: Most of the time you will be safe as you travel; and you will meet delightful people. Therefore, be open to meeting people while simultaneously being alert to the situation around you. Now go have fun in a smart and safe way!

For more travel tips: Setting Yourself Free – Packing Light

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