Sexual Harassment Abroad: The Worst Places in the World (Part 1)

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sexual harassment abroad

We were curious about the topic of sexual harassment abroad so we put the following question to users of the social news website Reddit:

“Which countries do female travelers get sexually harassed in the most?”

Initial reactions were varied:

“I hear Italy is the worst with regards to European countries.”

 – angstywhiteman

“South Africa isn’t that bad. Technically it’s the rape capital of the world, but in the tourist areas you’ll be fine.”

Peter W

“New Jersey.”

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Sex may be a prioritized interest for many travelers, but there are just as many who seek to avoid sexual confrontations on their adventures. In valuing those people who want to stay out of harm’s way, here’s TravelSexLife’s list of The Worst Places for Sexual Harassment Abroad (part one). But…

You’re not going to get a Top Ten list.

At least, not an official TravelSexLife one. Let me explain.

Every country has its own strengths and weaknesses – and for each traveller, any country’s detriments could be considered a strength. The passiveness with which Japanese women are associated, for example, works in the favor of many Western males who like the idea of submission from their partner. On the contrary, Western women don’t typically marry Japanese males, as those men are not really seen as “romantic.” I know I’m stereotyping, but the stereotype does exist – or at least it does for some cultures.

The concept of sexual harassment works a bit like this, as well. If you look at any two specific families from wildly different countries with different customs, one family’s idea of aggressive flirtation may be tantamount to rape in the other family’s eyes. In order to come up with any definitive list, we’d have to define sexual harassment as it pertains to all countries – matters of legality, age, familial consent, religious belief – and find some common ground.

It turns out, a consistent common ground is nearly impossible when you’re looking at the spectrum of our globe’s sexual diversities.

To illustrate one dilemma when making such a list, we’ll use The International Statistics and Criminal Justice‘s rankings of the countries with the highest rape statistics (100,000 per capita population).

1. North America
2. South Africa
3. Oceania
4. Latin America / Caribbean
5. West / Central Europe
6. East Europe
7. East Africa
8. East / South-East Asia
9. Southeast Europe
10. North Africa
 

However, a 1,000 per capita list from NationMaster depicts something very different.

1. Lesotho
2. New Zealand
3. Belgium
4. Iceland
5. Norway
6. Israel
7. Finland
8. Chile
9. Mongolia
10. Ireland
 

And when we look away from per capita lists and focus on actual reported rapes, we get these statistics (2009):

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1. France
2. Germany
3. Russia
4. Sweden
5. Argentina
6. Belgium
7. Philippines
8. Spain
9. Chile
10. Lesotho
 

One issue (amongst many more that I can’t yet recognise at this point), is that providing simple lists removes important contextual clues to understand the data. In America, society publicly denounces rape, and as such, there is less potential emotional duress in reporting a rape than in a country that demonizes the women who are assaulted. In many Muslim societies, for example, women may be put to death for being raped. Many women fall victim to discrimination from even their own families – their violated chastity viewed as a disgrace to their blood. In many of these cases, the women will be put to death in an “honour killing” to preserve the integrity of the family.

In some Latin America countries, more than half of all women who die in a year, die at the hands of their partners or ex-partners in “crimes of passion.” These women are often killed simply on account of their partner having had a fit of jealousy or because they had broken up.

Furthermore, many South Asian women are harassed, tortured, driven to suicide, or burned to death in the attempt to extort more money from their family; this is known as a “dowry death.” Though the Dowry Prohibition Act of India has made dowry an illegal prerequisite or preconsideration for marriage, there are still thousands of cases every year.

But are these cultures flying the flag as the worst places for sexual harassment abroad?

These numbers, of course, cannot accurately account for the thousands of women who remain silent.  To state that one country is more sexually-charged, aggressive or offensive, is particularly damning.

(for those who are interested, some of the countries where “honor killings,” “dowry death,” or “crime passions” take place include: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait, Latin America, Lebanon, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, Peru, Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, Uganda, United Arab Emirates and Yemen)

Statistics aside, we thought we’d ask some of you out there what you thought. Here’s what you had to say:

“From my experience, Northern Africa and the Middle East have been the worst places I’ve experienced sexual harassment abroad. In Alexandria, Egypt, it was impossible to even walk down the street without several dudes whistling at the girls we were with (I guess jeans and a sweatshirt are considered pretty slutty over there.) One time a guy even reached out and grabbed my girlfriend’s ass as we were walking down the street.”

bluecas32

 

“Egypt is the worst I’ve seen, and I’ve been to about fifty countries. Rural Turkey is also bad, and some of the less-visited parts of the Balkans.

In Cairo, some guys made comments about my wife, so I went over and told them in Arabic that they were speaking to my wife without my permission and that Allah sees everything that they’re doing (my wife’s Palestinian and I can read, write and speak Arabic). That embarrassed them. It also helps that I’m a scary-looking white guy who looks like ex-military or an old biker. But don’t try this unless you’re OK with the possibility of starting a ruckus.”

ChollaIsNotDildo

 

“Not sure about other places, but as a 22-year-old woman traveling alone through Ghana and Togo (W Africa), it was terrible for sexual harassment abroad in both the urban and rural areas.

In the urban markets men would grab me hard on the arms and drag me into their stalls and would get extremely offended if I pulled away. I would get, on average, 4 marriage proposals/day (~70% kidding, 30% serious in which they would start yelling to the crowd about not accepting in an angry way) along with cat-calling, and while going over the border to Togo, the (Togo) border guard began dry humping me and the Ghanaian guard had to come over to the Togo side and escort me to the taxi station to get the guard off me.

I was also very nearly sexually assaulted when going to document an outcast witch colony at Gamabaga and was too afraid to report it since I knew they would kill the guy if I said anything. Extremely hard decision.

No joke. So if you’re a girl and can avoid it, try not to travel alone there.”

People_Penguin

 

“India was the worst place in my experience. I literally had a guy grab me in the crotch once – and this was a clean-cut, professional-looking guy in the middle of a nice area of Delhi. Beyond that, I was constantly stared at, remarked upon, etc. I made a huge effort to dress conservatively (long-ish skirt, covered shoulders) but I still got unwanted attention everywhere I went.”

 – sexysexthroway

 

“Pretty much anywhere out of North America and Western Europe is bad for sexual harassment abroad.

Eastern Europe (Ex Soviet Bloc) and East Asia (India, China, Japan, Korea) is probably not too bad as long as you stay in the “tourist” areas and apply some common sense (no unlicensed Taxis, don’t be alone at night, etc)

Africa or the Middle East is probably not a good idea on your own, but with a couple of male friends you should be fine as long as you know the local laws and again stay in the tourist areas. Make sure you know that in a lot of countries if you get raped you are the one who goes to prison.

South America can be a bit sketchy, but isn’t anywhere as bad as Africa or the Middle East, you should be ok here too if you don’t go wandering into slums and away from your tour group.

And of course Australia and New Zealand are perfectly safe, other than all the animals that will kill you.”

 – Peter-W

What about you? Have you ever been sexually harassed abroad? Do you have any suggestions for areas to avoid? Or perhaps you’ve thought of an ideal common ground that can unite the world in classifying sexual harassment? Join TravelSexLife in the discussion below.

(cc) lilianwagdy

17 COMMENTS

  1. Good post Michael, I like the perspective you looked at it. You could apply your point about statistics being subjective to many other things that are around us, news, reports etc. Data is a powerful thing, if the presenter knows how to manipulate / present it, to fit the subject. Real experience and feedback from people counts so much more.

    thanks,
    Lukas

    • I’m thinking it’s to link to a poualpr tv programme in Japan “???????????”. In this programme, people bring their claims in real life to the show and the lawyers in the programme would decide whether the claim is sue-able.

  2. These stats are super interesting.. I got harassed quite a bit in South America due to my hair and skin… but I found it really weird in China when I would get physically molested and stalked by South African and Middle Eastern men (especially in Beijing).
    Well, I stalk and molest boys all over North America, so I guess it balances out?
    Gah! Karmas a bitch!

  3. A fair treatment to this subject, plus I quite like your site! Once I left the *safe* confines of North America the perception of sexual harassment does alter drastically.

    The one person’s comment about being whistled at on the street.. that happened to me In Brazil; however, in my mind that wasn’t dangerous. And yes, I would call myself a feminist. To me, it was simply a verbal appreciation of beauty (and yeah, strokes the battered ego). I will now get hate mail because I said this – slippery slope theory – if we allow one practice to thrive, won’t that lead to rape? According to your list, rape is prevalent in Sweden, a country that is constantly painted as gender neutral. So, how can that be so? No, I don’t think a mere whistle necessarily leads to that horrible, violent act.

    For one, I never directly responded to the whistling. And sure, sometimes I did if I thought the fella was cute. Mostly though, no. Also, an interesting thing about Brazil is both genders tend to cheat on each other, and women are not as weak as perceived. In fact, they are strong – I saw a group of them bring down a bus driver (our bus had broken down).

    I also traveled to India, while it’s riches are worth multiple trips, yes, it is a very repressed society. That woman is right, there is a palatable sexual tension because young men are virgins to what we consider an old age (usually 27 or so). Indeed, they STARE, without subtlety. There were a few incidents when comments were made to me, but mostly I never let that detract from my positive experiences there.

    I’d say I got it worse in Turkey. I was there in 2004, when Turkey wasn’t necessarily the happening place it is now and when female solo travel wasn’t usual. A bus worker slid his hand across my thigh. That was bad and ironically another Turkish man “saved” me by interrupting the inevitable outcome. I was being stubborn and stupid though, ignoring the warnings in guidebooks about females sitting at the back of the bus.

    We all have our ideas about sexual conduct, what is considered correct as individuals or a society as whole (I’m speaking apart from actual law here). And when you intermingle those divergent ideas – power kegs happen or major misunderstandings or downright shitty behaviour. As a female traveler, it’s a matter of knowing what’s right for you and what is totally unacceptable.

    Sorry for the long-winded comment, but felt it was appropriate. Cheers!

    • Haha, it was actually hilarious. What happened is our bus broke down outside of Salvador (lovely city, go if you can) and it seemed the bus driver was inept at tackling the problem, i.e., not phoning for another bus or getting the current one repaired. Every single man stepped back as the women circled round the driver, pointing fingers and speaking in rising, angry tones. They were giving him a verbal drubbing. Was something to see, I tell you!

  4. I guess the simple act of touching a woman is all it takes to be considered sexual harassment (no I don’t mean just tapping her shoulder or her forearm or grabbing her out of harm’s way, etc). I’m referring to some of the comments men inappropriately touching them, I noticed that your article points out some Muslim women are killed because they were sexually harassed does this mean they get killed simply because a man inappropriately touched her and this is deemed horrendous to them?

    I’m not trying to be morbid or praising a specific location to be #1 for the kind of sexual harassment they do but I am a bit surprised Sierra Leone isn’t on the top list of ANY sexual harassment lists unless they have changed? Is mutilation of the female genitals considered sexual harassment? (I’d say its that plus more, or maybe this is TOO specific to include?)

    Oh, I’m also told but I rarely hear people talk about it that MEN are also sexually harassed, what about this?

  5. As an experienced backpacker having travelled 3/4 of the world, I made a conscious decision not to go to places where it’s considered the norm for women to be second class citizens. As a lone female traveller, my safety was paramount. However, in Australia I came across someone from a country I considered unsafe and he wouldn’t leave me alone. He composed ‘love’ letters saying how I was to become the mother of his children. I later found out he’d just come out of prison for stabbing someone.

    So, wherever you end up going it’s always important to remember you can meet any type of person. That’s why you should always be on your guard.

  6. I enjoyed reading this article, it was very maturely written. Sometimes it is hard to draw the line between sexual harassment and plain intimidation. I am by no means a seasoned traveller but no-one on here has really mentioned South America – where the ‘macho’ culture is prevalent and women are seen as sex objects.

    Whilst in most parts of Colombia, I experienced general staring and catcalls, but the majority of this was flattering – compliments on my looks (I have big green eyes and blonde hair, which they were fascinated with). Once I reached the Caribbean side of Colombia though, (Cartagena, Taganga and Santa Marta) this ‘attention’ became pervasive to the extent that I dreaded leaving the hostel.

    Santa Marta in particular was incredibly intimidating – men would whistle, shout at me, blow me kisses (in front of their wives and children at times!) and try to take photos of me. I found myself covering up more and more despite the heat, and even though the women there tend to dress EXTREMELY skimpily, the men would only stare at me! (I had the foreign exotic look I guess). However, can this constitute as sexual harassment? Unlike many other females’ experiences, no man ever touched me inappropriately or actually tried to attack me. Yet I felt constantly intimidated and the attention was very intrusive and tiring.

    Therefore the line becomes ever more fine – how can we really define sexual harassment?

    • I guess this is one of the reasons why middle eastern women wear burkas; what they can’t see won’t hurt you I suppose but then I’d say that’d be uncomfortably hot in all that.

  7. Good points and nice article to read but I think we have digressed ourselves from what we want to know. It is about sexual harassment while travelling. The data here shows how women are treated in their own countries. While I appreciate the date & article, it’d have been nice if some light was thrown on female travellers being harassed abroad.

    In that case, I think India is the most unsafe country for female travellers.

  8. Definitely some good things to think about. I’ve already decided that most of the Middle East is not high on my list of places I’d like to visit. After our RTW trip, we may go back there as part of a guided tour group (which will be very strange!) since we just don’t know all of their customs. I wouldn’t want to get thrown in jail or stoned to death by doing something offensive on accident!

  9. I was harassed in Ecuador by two different mountain guides whom O was paying to guide me, both episodes on the same week. Ecuatorian men flirt all the time, to the point of it being annoying, and they do look down on female tourists, almost as if to compete with each other in terms of who gets to be whom. This is a country I certainly will never go back to alone.

  10. Hello! Quick question that’s totally off topic. Do you know how to make your site mobile friendly? My web site looks weird when viewing from my apple iphone. I’m trying to find a template or plugin that might be able to correct this issue. If you have any recommendations, please share. Cheers!

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