Handling Catcalls and Street Harassment Abroad

By Robin Marie Reliford, Director of Health and Safety

Whistles. Animal noises. Suggestive comments. The official term is “street harassment” and though it happens all over the world, I know personally, it can be very unsettling when in a foreign environment. The targets of street harassment are not just limited to girls and women; minorities and members of the LGBTQI community also experience it while abroad. Sometimes, the cat-calls and comments are banal, albeit still inappropriate. Other times, they can be quite aggressive, vulgar, or persistent, and leave the target feeling vulnerable, embarrassed, and threatened.

In recent years, some countries have taken steps to try to eradicate street harassment against women by punishing offenders. Belgium and Portugal have passed laws against street harassment and this past March, France announced a new bill that could fine offenders too. In other countries, such as India, where street harassment is so ingrained in the culture, community projects and outreach with an emphasis on educating community members are being implemented to effect change.

At ISA and WorldStrides, we aim to advise students traveling and studying abroad to help them be prepared with best practices to mitigate and/or respond to this unwelcomed behavior. It’s important to me to say this: street harassment is not the victim’s fault. We recommend these steps because we want you to enjoy your time abroad. It doesn’t excuse the behavior. It’s wrong.

Here are some important best practices:

Research the culture prior to traveling

Yes, you are going abroad to learn about the country where you are traveling, but a little prior research is important. Understanding gender, cultural, and social norms can help prepare you for what you may encounter once there. To the extent possible, read books, articles, and follow local news before going abroad. The U.S. Department of State notes issues for women and diverse travelers in its country advisories and is a great resource. (See Morocco, for example.) ISA pre-departure safety materials and orientations will also highlight relevant gender, cultural, and social norms of which travelers should be aware.

Dress like locals

Dressing like locals helps you blend in and can make you less of an obvious target on the streets. This is especially true in a conservative part of the world, like in the Middle East, but should be applied everywhere. As a general rule, I try to pack neutral colors that can be accented with easy-to-pack accessories. Sophisticated but loose fitting tops and dresses are easy to pack and just plain comfortable, especially if you plan on sampling a lot of local cuisine! Depending on how long you will be abroad, consider saving room in your luggage and shopping while in country, which is the easiest way to dress like a local. Making yourself a less obvious tourist will not only help mitigate against street harassment, but can also help prevent being victim to other common tourist risks.

Busy street in Tokyo.

Walk with confidence and purpose

When possible, plan out where you are going next. But even if you haven’t, it’s safest to walk as if you know where you are going. If you need to stop to look at a map or ask for directions, discreetly pop into an establishment or stop for a coffee rather than pull out your cell phone and activate your navigation feature on the street. When walking around, keep your head up and be deliberate with your moves. Don’t look lost or frightened as you will appear more vulnerable.

Walk with a friend or in small groups

There is strength in numbers! But not too many. Having someone else to talk to while walking may be a deterrent for someone looking to speak to you. But if you are exploring the city during free time as a group, try to keep the size of the group to a reasonable number (3 -5 people) to prevent looking like a herd of tourists, which can draw more attention to you.

Ignore the comments

If you experience harassment, try as best as you can to ignore it. Most times, the offender is looking to get a reaction out of you – almost like a cat and mouse game – and you don’t want to engage them.

Student overlooking canals in Venice, Italy.

If you can’t ignore the comments, be loud and firm in the local language and keep moving.

If you cannot ignore the comments because you are approached or the person becomes persistent or starts to follow you, be loud and firm in telling them to stop. Learning how to say this in local language can be helpful, so if you are in a country where harassment is common, ask your resident staff or program leaders for the words in advance. Even as you are speaking, keep moving and get to safety as soon as you can. Don’t be afraid to ask a shopkeeper for assistance if needed.

Remember, unwelcomed physical contact is NEVER okay and you have options if this happens to you. You can report this behavior to your resident staff and program leaders. In addition to offering emotional support, they can help you navigate local customs to decide on next steps (legal, medical, etc.) and get resources to help you. ISA will also communicate with your home university or school to make sure you have resources available when you return to the U.S. or your home country.

I’ve traveled all over the world and my positive experiences abroad far outweigh the negative. An overwhelming majority of the people I encountered on my journeys, men included, were kind, helpful, and eager to share the beauty of their country and culture with me. Being an informed traveler can help you navigate any unpleasant encounters while still being open to the humanity that so many of us find when we take the time to see the world.

Robin Marie Reliford oversees international risk and crisis management for WorldStrides’ higher education divisions as Director of Health and Safety. This includes monitoring world events in order to mitigate against risks; implementing emergency protocols and procedures; managing student emergencies and large-scale incidents in collaboration with staff globally; and working closely with executive management on policy development and compliance. Robin has collaborated closely with university partners to build the organization’s security group and has established a reputation as a leader in the field.

Author: International Studies Abroad (ISA)

Since 1987, International Studies Abroad (ISA) has provided college students in the United States and Canada the opportunity to explore the world. ISA offers a wide variety of study abroad programs at accredited schools and universities in 73 program locations throughout the world.

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