A few years ago I came across a really great travel deal to Ireland. It included flights, accommodations, a car rental and even a castle stay, all within my budget. I had recently moved home from college and was working at the time, but many of my friends didn’t have the finances for travel that I had saved. Apart from not knowing how to drive a manual (I still give my parents grief for not teaching me how), there was something holding me back that wasn’t price, availability or my desire to go — I just didn’t feel completely safe traveling alone.
My hesitation to pack my bags didn’t come from inexperience — I have traveled my whole life and spent four months overseas when I was 20 years old, in countries such as Brazil, South Africa, China and India (albeit while I was studying abroad, and always with a group).
Recent crimes against women in the news worldwide, coupled with an unsettling piece in the New York Times about violence against women traveling abroad, had me reflecting on my own position.
While Europe is considered a relative safe zone by many travelers, I still couldn’t picture tasting my first authentic Guinness, alone in an Irish bar, away from anyone I knew. It wasn’t the fear of loneliness — the beer would be just as delicious with or without a companion — it was purely concern of the unknown. This is because the question many women travelers have been asking for so long should be less a question about being abroad, and more about women’s safety on a global scale.
I think it’s so difficult for aspiring travelers (of any gender) to wander the world carefree, because the open-mindedness and welcoming attitude that serves as the cornerstone of independent travel, is in direct conflict with the disheartening reality of violent crime. In particular, women are not only targets for violence, but also sexual violence, which makes the decision to travel solo more poignant and more of a risk. This isn’t the reality in some distant, lawless land; this is the reality everywhere in the world — both at home and on foreign soil.
It then might not make sense for me to justify so much time spent wandering the streets of New York City alone, at all hours of the day or night, but context is a factor in my personal decision of whether I feel safe in a location. I am familiar with New York — I speak the language, I know the laws, I know how to get around, and in a pinch, I have familiar faces I can phone that are nearby. That’s not to say statistically, New York is any safer than Istanbul or any other city, but my comfort level and my instincts feel more refined there. I could just as easily become a victim of a hapless crime one block from where I live as I could halfway across the world, so in my eyes, it’s a matter of taking chances.
Sarai Sierra was one woman among many who travel solo. Unfortunately, Sierra did not return home from her trip to Turkey last year, when unlike many solo travelers, she was murdered after her assailant made unwanted advances towards her. Media attention steeped in fear may be to blame for putting many societal issues in a negative light — the one- in-a-hundred chance — but the fact is things can and do happen while traveling abroad (being alone and a woman doesn’t help your case) and for a time they can outshine the many fulfilling experiences people do have. (Jodi Ettenberg wrote a very balanced blog on the subject for Legal Nomads in February 2013 – the same month Sierra was found dead.)
So are women safe abroad? I would say just about as safe as they are anywhere. Travel is a risk, and one everyone should take, but the circumstances regarding solo travel are especially personal (and as a woman, more vulnerable). I am sad to say that while the prospect of traveling alone isn’t an impossible feat, as a woman, I must admit it makes me nervous. As with anything in life, stepping outside your door is a daily gamble — it’s up to you if the benefit of having meaningful travel experiences outweighs the potential challenges.
I had the chance to travel solo to Ireland, and in the end I was too unsure about it. With everything going on in the world, my fears weren’t exactly unfounded. However, the point is women are at risk anywhere, and a lot of women travelers understand that and go anyway. If I can roam the streets of the City that Never Sleeps, then maybe one day I can pick up and do the same independently in the Emerald Isle.
— written by Brittany Chrusciel