An earlier version of this story stated that a Thomson Reuters Foundation study ranked Delhi the most dangerous to women of the world’s 19 largest megacities. In fact, Cairo was ranked the most dangerous overall, while Delhi, along with Sao Paulo, was ranked the worst megacity for sexual violence and harassment. The story has been updated
Sarah Brady spent seven weeks studying Spanish in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 2011. Then 29, the student walked to class every day, a 20-minute route that involved a long, uphill climb, intense heat and a barrage of harassment from men. Male pedestrians would shout lewd comments, and drivers would honk their horns or slowly roll alongside her. One man pretended to stumble and fall on her, a ploy to cop a feel; another unzipped his pants. She confided in her teacher, who brushed off her complaints as Mexican men being Mexican men. However, he grew sympathetic after she presented him with a tally of verbal abuse on one of her trips to school: 20 comments, or one per minute.
"He was shocked and upset on my behalf, and began to acknowledge my frustration," she said.
Brady's experience was not unique to Mexico. In Marrakesh, Morocco, men approached her and boys shouted "sex" at her. In Paris, a man she had met at Notre Dame turned aggressive, pushing himself on her while they were on a dark and deserted street. She resisted and steered them toward a busy bar. Once inside, she was shaken by the thought of what could have happened.
"I still travel alone quite often," said the San Francisco-based writer and consultant, "but unfortunately, I tend to avoid countries where the conditions are less equitable for women and I'm less likely to get help from strangers or the police if needed."
Brady is not alone. In October, Girls LOVE Travel, a closed Facebook group with more than 450,000 members, posted nearly 1,000 comments under #gltmetoo. When GLT founder Haley Woods asked members to share their stories with a reporter, 75 messages appeared over a 24-hour period. Among the respondents were Mariellen Ward, who was riding in a cycle rickshaw in Old Delhi when a man grabbed her breast; Lindsay Wilde, who discovered a touchy-feely host in her bed during a couchsurfing stay in Lucerne, Switzerland; and Brittany, who spoke on the condition of using only her first name. She was on a trip to London with her grandmother when a shopkeeper's son molested her.
"It is a woman's right to free movement, to travel, to explore, to enjoy public spaces, to ride public transportation without experiencing the fear of violence," said Lakshmi Puri, deputy executive director of UN Women, the international agency devoted to gender equality and empowering women.
Here is what female travelers need to know to stay safe when traveling.
Understand your destination
Start by researching the attitudes toward and treatment of women in your destinations. This spring, the Thomson Reuters Foundation released a list that rated the danger to women in 19 of the world's largest megacities (urban centers with more than 10 million inhabitants). The study singled out Cairo as the riskiest overall and deemed London the safest. Delhi and Sao Paulo were ranked the worst for sexual violence and harassment of women.
Many guidebooks feature a section geared toward female travelers. Lonely Planet's online Jordan guide, for instance, explains that men's views of American women often stem from provocative Western movies and TV shows. The passage also prepares travelers for such nuisances as amorous baying and marriage proposals, and provides women with a platform to share their own tips, such as "Don't go outside with wet hair — this apparently implies you've had sex recently!"
The State Department's website posts country-specific information on destinations from A (Afghanistan) to Z (Zimbabwe). Pay special attention to the data under "Safety and Security." For example, a segment on Morocco reads, "Aggressive panhandling, pick-pocketing, purse-snatching, theft from unoccupied vehicles, and harassment of women are the most frequently reported issues." For India, the write-up under "Sexual Assault" states, "Travelers should be aware that there have been reported cases of sexual assault, including rape, of U.S. citizens traveling throughout India." The agency's site dispenses nuggets of wisdom, such as never share your hotel room number, as well as critical contacts including U.S. Embassy phone numbers, sexual abuse hotlines and other resources for victims.
"I don't think people are hesitant about coming to the embassy," said Virgil Carstens, a State Department spokesman, "but they might not be aware of the services we offer."
Founded in 1999, Pathways to Safety International is dedicated to assisting Americans who have suffered sexual abuse or domestic violence while traveling or living abroad. The organization, which recently lost its $800,000 funding from the Justice Department for the sexual assault program, provides free country dossiers. The nonprofit group has assembled know-before-you-go information for 65 countries, and plans to add 20 more countries by year's end. (Request a free copy by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.) The profiles include such general advice as "trust your gut," as well as specialized information. In Australia, for example, physicians must provide victims with prophylaxis and emergency contraception, and can offer medical exams without a police report.
"We are there for whatever the survivor needs and wants," said Paula Lucas, who started the group after fleeing an abusive marriage in Dubai.
Once you have planned your itinerary, program emergency phone numbers into your phone — for U.S. embassies and consulates, local hospitals that cater to Westerners, police departments, travel and medical insurance providers, and Pathways. Print out a copy, in case technology fails you. Also, have access to several forms of communication, such as a mobile phone with international service, email and free apps such as WhatsApp or Skype.
"Being connected can be a safety strategy," said Ward, a travel writer who divides her time between Toronto and Delhi.
Know safety basics
You can take steps to minimize the risk of harassment and assault while traveling. Avoid dark, isolated areas. Arrive at any new destination in the daytime. Never tell a stranger where you are staying or when you are leaving the country: Some men prey on women departing the next day, knowing that the victim will probably not change her flight to pursue them. Do not multitask: No chatting on the phone, texting, reading or podcast-listening in public places. Travel in pairs or groups.
Lucas adds that women should always designate one member of their group the teetotaler. She also warns women against indulging in the welcome drink served at many hotels in the Far and Middle East. She has heard from women who have been drugged by this seemingly innocent beverage (tea, coffee or juice) and assaulted by hotel employees in their rooms. As for full-moon parties, the beach bacchanals in Thailand that are notoriously dangerous for women: Drink only sealed beverages.
To ensure that your drink has not been tainted, carry one of the discreet drink test kits on the market. The drug identifiers come in a variety of models such as dipsticks and strips, as well as more covert options that look like nail polish, cups, coasters and straws.
To avoid unwanted attention, leave revealing clothes at home and bring looser, longer pieces in neutral colors or shades of black. For outfit ideas in conservative cultures, follow the style norm of local women. Wearing a kurta in India or a jellabiya in Egypt is not insulting; it is assimilating.
"Wearing Indian clothes suits the climate and the need for modesty," Ward said, "and it shows that you respect Indian culture and are willing to adapt to the traditions of society."
Evelyn Hannon, founder of the online travel magazine, Journeywoman, suggests wearing dark sunglasses in cultures (India, parts of the Middle East) where the men might misinterpret direct eye contact. Many women also slip on a fake wedding ring. The symbol of matrimony can shut down the line of query that often starts with, "Are you married?" and ends with a proposition.
In 2014, the Thomson Reuters Foundation surveyed the most dangerous transportation systems for women. The organization ranked Mexico City, Delhi, Jakarta and Lima, Peru, among the worst, with Bogota, Colombia, at No. 1. To counter the threat, several countries — Japan, India, Brazil, Egypt and Mexico, to name a few — have designated women-only subway cars. If you are stuck with a mixed-gender carriage, grab a seat to avoid pinches from behind or stand with your sisters for a 360-degree shield. Wear your bag in front of your chest to protect yourself from creeping hands.
Sudha Pillai, a journalist in Bangalore who grew up in India, said that she and her friends used to carry safety pins to fend off men in crowded buses and trains.
Taxi safety varies from country to country. In some cities, such as Mexico City and Sao Paolo, Brazil, never hail a ride from the street. Instead, order a ride from a trusted source, such as a hotel, restaurant or certified taxi organization. In a growing trend, cab companies have an Eve behind the wheel and Evettes in the passenger seat: No men allowed. The pioneering idea has sprouted in Cairo (PinkTaxi), Mumbai (Priyadarshini Taxi and Viira Cabs) and Paris (Women Drive).
No matter who's driving, always sit in the back seat. I made this mistake in Sochi, Russia, in 2013, and the driver slapped his hand on my thigh. If you are subject to inappropriate comments or actions, surreptitiously snap photos of the cabbie's face, permit and license plate, or record the interaction — provided that you are not in immediate danger and can do so without escalating the situation.
In an assault
Puri urges women who find themselves in threatening situations to remember their WEALTH, a mnemonic device for assessing danger. W is for weapon: (Does he have one or do you?); E is for escape: (Is there an exit route?); A is for accomplices and allies: (Who are his and yours?); L is for language: (Can you detect body language, too?); T is for terrain: (What is the landscape?); and H is for hands: (Where are his and what is in them?). Develop a game plan based on the answers.
In most scenarios, Puri recommends active resistance, such as shouting, running and performing self-defense moves. If that approach fails, she said, switch to passive resistance such as soiling yourself, claiming to have a sexually transmitted disease or explaining that you are married or religious. If the predator is unmoved, carrying a weapon and threatening your life, she advises retreating into a state of nonresistance.
"Your objective is to survive," she said.
In cases of harassment on public transportation, experts encourage women to make a scene. "Make your objections known, even if the act might be unintentional. Even a loud 'excuse me' will bring attention to the inappropriate behavior," Puri said. "Look to strangers for help."
After a man in a car followed Jessica May Matheson in Changwon, South Korea, the GLT-er realized the importance of language skills. "I'm making sure of knowing how to yell 'help' in whatever language in whichever country I am in," she said, "as well as knowing the laws about sexual assault and rape, so then I can know if that country would even be willing to help me."
Hannon suggests another word — pervert — for your foreign dictionary. In Tokyo, she said that men often ride the train drunk after post-work boozing and grope female passengers. She recommends grabbing the errant hand and yelling "chikan."
Sara Ellis, a lawyer in Nashville, was nervous about confronting her tour guide in Peru lest he sabotage her trip. However, on her last night, she shared her alarming experience with the owner of the lodge. He took immediate action, taking the employee aside and eventually firing him.
"It was empowering to feel heard and to know that speaking up caused the situation to be resolved and hopefully prevent it from happening to someone else," she said.
After an assault
If you have suffered a sexual assault, first and foremost, seek safety. Then start making calls. At the top of your list: Pathways to Safety International, which can provide support for all of your medical, emotional and legal needs (plus free Uber rides to your hotel); and the U.S. Embassy, which can refer you to a credible hospital, local and U.S.-based counseling services, and English-speaking lawyers. Both entities have a live person on call day and night.
To preserve evidence of the attack, refrain from brushing your teeth and bathing until you have sought professional help. If you wish to remove your clothes, place them in a paper bag, not a plastic one. Document the incident with notes and pictures, including images of your wounds and the scene of the attack. At the hospital, ask for a rape kit, and HIV and STD tests. Retain copies of the medical reports and test results. Depending on the country, you may or may not want to inform the authorities of the incident.
"You just don't know who you can trust," Lucas said.
Unfortunately, some law enforcement departments do not take sexual crimes seriously, or the officers are corrupt. Several State Department country profiles inform victims to contact the U.S. Embassy first; it's easy to read between the lines. The advice applies to Cambodia, Mauritania and Oman, among others.
"If someone has been attacked or encountered problems, yes, the police should be informed," said Dan Wick, a volunteer State Department warden in Cartagena, Colombia. "However, they may not take the action desired and downplay the incident. More and more, the police are being more sensitive and responsive to tourists, but not always."
Pathways can help victims navigate the labyrinthine legal system of a foreign country. The organization will pay for a legal consultation (but not attorney fees for prosecution) and cover the travel costs if the woman must return for the court date. Last year, the organization assisted 415 sexual assault victims in 41 countries and is currently working with 137 women.
Lucas knows of several Americans who followed their cases to courthouses in Italy and Morocco. The women are no longer victims; they are survivors — and victors.
More from Travel: