Like many college students facing a graduation date, I’ve been searching for the answer to the looming question of what will come next. Because I’m graduating early and have been accepted into a 2014 Teach for America program in New Orleans, I’ve considered traveling during my six months of freedom. I want to do something meaningful that’s within my budget, so I began researching volunteer programs, backpacking trips and ways to see the world without falling deeper into debt.
I looked into the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) program in Greece and Italy and researched teaching opportunities like Language Corps in India and South Korea. However, in a global community where women are oppressed — and in many countries, considered second-class citizens — I became worried that my taste for adventure would be more dangerous than rewarding. As someone who has always felt comfortable jumping on a bus or a train to travel city to city on the East Coast by herself, I began to realize this was a privilege I’ve been able to enjoy because the oppression of women in our country is less overt.
I talked to three friends who’ve traveled the world and participated in service programs abroad to help me understand the reality of these experiences in a gender context. Collectively, these three women have seen 38 countries and five continents. Two are currently volunteering abroad. Catherine Goodson is in Cambodia and Thailand, and Monica de Pinto Ribeiro Hancke is in Guinea Bissau. At just 21 years old, Monica has also volunteered in Tanzania, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Dylan Manderlink (who is currently in the United States) has volunteered in San Gerardo, Costa Rica and Hohoe, Ghana.
These women have travelled to different corners of the world with very different service missions. The one thing they have in common is that they all report having concerns about their safety, but refused to be deterred from experiencing the culture of these countries or serving to the fullest of their abilities.
Many are familiar with horror stories of reputable organizations like the Peace Corps refusing to give sexual assault survivors the support they need. In one case, Mary Kate Shannon was raped twice as a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru and denied abortion coverage when one of her rapes ended in pregnancy. In another case, Marte Deborah Dalelv, a Norwegian woman, was raped in Dubai and sentenced to a 16-month jail sentence after reporting it for charges including extramarital sex. She has since been “pardoned.”
Tragic stories like these are more than just rare instances made for headlines in news articles. When de Pinto Ribeiro Hancke was in Tanzania in 2011, a fellow volunteer was raped in the back of a taxi only two days before. During Manderlink’s Ghana trip, men would comment on her appearance and put their arms around her while she walked to her work site. They would also pull up alongside her on their bikes and, without speaking, ride very close to her while she walked. She even had a school official watch her teach almost every day, which she found out later was because he believed he’d been courting her for marriage. She was barely 18 and the headmaster was aggressively flirting with her and quasi-stalking her at her job.
Goodson, who is currently working with Operation Groundswell, said that she would never have travelled to Southeast Asia on her own in part due to safety concerns, but found that travelling with a program and other volunteers has put some of that concern to rest. The most extreme examples of threats in the area for women travelling solo are human trafficking and sex slavery. Although Goodson hasn’t heard of any specific cases recently, she said, “Even so, it doesn’t feel farfetched here — like if you are caught in the wrong place drunk or under the influence, or if you get tricked by the wrong scam, it’s a definite possibility.”
Many advice columns on websites about ways to travel the world tell women to dress a certain way, make excuses for some of the sexual harassment (labeling it as a cultural aspect) and not to put themselves in situations where they may become victims. Victim-blaming is not inherently foreign. In fact it happens every day in this country. Why are young, ambitious women who want to serve the global community being told by the programs they’re dedicating time to that should be liable and accountable for their own safety?
Despite the fact that all three of my friends are strong independent women who made the decisions about their service trips based on the work that they wanted to do, they all reported complying with cultural standards. They changed their behaviors, travelled in groups and avoided public transportation. Yet these issues won’t go away if the global culture continues to excuse violence against women and survivors are forced to remain silent.
“I, along with many women I have traveled with, want to travel on our own, experience a new culture and indulge in a spirit of adventure. But there are so many boundaries put in front of us that many men don’t even think twice about,” said Manderlink. “Female travelers are consumed with thinking about their safety and what situations might make them feel vulnerable. I don’t want to feel vulnerable or scared when I travel, I want to be able to enjoy my experience as much as any man.”
It is hard to change a world that is not your own, that you have not seen, that you have no value in. I only hope that when I have the opportunity to leave this country I can mimic the courage of these women and many others. I don’t want to let my fear conquer my choices, but instead inform them, until we can live in a world where that fear no longer exists.
As I continue to explore options and possibilities in which even someone in my financial situation can travel, it makes me angry that I have to worry about whether I will be assaulted in that country, whether the volunteer program would blame me or whether I would ever find justice. These are not considerations that I should have to make, yet I make them every day in my own country and until we demand better, young women will continue to enter situations in which they are vulnerable based on their gender. Women all over the world have been fighting for better education and ends to street harassment, violence, child marriage and genital mutilation. Hopefully, with progress, the fear and uncertainty that limits the experience of a female traveler will come to an end too.