In most large cities, female students need not worry about their safety more than they do in the United States. When negative incidents have occurred in these areas, they are often highly avoidable. In these destinations, a good rule of thumb is that if you wouldn't do it at home, you shouldn't do it here. Much of remaining safe has to do with trusting your instincts, as well as with projecting a confident and assertive attitude.
But female students inevitably will have to fend off unwanted attention more than their male counterparts. And simply because your new surroundings will be unfamiliar to you, you need to be more vigilant than you would be on your home campus or in your hometown. Of course, you will want to avoid taking shortcuts and routes that are off the beaten path, especially late at night. You should also travel around with at least one other person. Cat calls or other unsolicited attention from the locals should remain unacknowledged in these situations. Much of staying safe abroad is common sense.
Awareness and Research
Awareness of yourself and your surroundings is an essential skill to have while studying abroad. David S. Katz, president and CEO of the Global Security Group, has written an article titled "Personal Safety for Women Traveling Abroad on Business," in which he calls this awareness of personal security a "state of relaxed alertness." He stresses that women are advised not to be paranoid, but rather to be more aware. This is an important distinction, because female students should not live in fear while studying abroad.
Doing research on your study abroad destination is crucial to learning how to stay safe while abroad. Information is available about security warnings, crime rates and political stability. The U.S. State Department offers up-to-date travel alerts and information on most foreign countries. Be sure to locate the nearest U.S. embassies and consulates at your destination. You can visit foreignborn.com to view a list of embassies and consulates by country on the website, as well as access travel information on visas and passports.
Keep in mind that while consulates can help you in the event of an emergency, illness, injury or other situations, they cannot cash checks for you, lend you money or provide you with legal counsel. Consulates can help you replace a stolen passport, contact family and friends, and obtain appropriate medical care. They can also help you to obtain general information about the local criminal justice process, as well as to obtain a list of local attorneys who speak English.
Study abroad students should register their travel with the State Department. This way they can be reached in the event of a family emergency back home. Registration is free and can be done online at https://travelregistration.state.gov/ibrs/ui/.
New Culture, New Safety Concerns
Female study abroad students should look into the cultural norms and religious codes in the country in which they will be studying. Find out what behavior, dress, etc., is acceptable for women in your destination country and learn about the role gender plays in the society. Social gestures that may seem innocuous in your culture may be interpreted in radically different ways in other societies. Find out what strategies that the local women use to keep safe and to stave off unwanted male advances, as well as what comes across as an invitation to romance. Understanding local culture will help you stay safe. It is also helpful to speak with students who have returned from studying in your destination country, as they will share their experiences and give you advice on safety precautions.
Female study abroad students should be culturally sensitive, but not to the detriment of their safety. You want to be open-minded but not to the extent that you place yourself in danger. When you reach your study abroad destination, locate the nearest police station and hospital. Take any issues or concerns you may have while abroad to your program director or university administrators. If you are feeling harassed or being made uncomfortable by another person, don't feel compelled to deal with the disturbance in a pleasant manner. Sometimes people need to be told directly and bluntly to refrain from bothering you.
Become as familiar as possible with the foreign currency you will be using while studying abroad. You may want to consider wearing a money belt to carry your cash and identification. Another idea is to keep your cash separate from your credit card in case of theft. Carrying a single credit card, as well as photocopies of your identification and important documents, is also advised.
The same intuitive rules you learned to be safe in the U.S. also apply when studying abroad. If you are paying cash, be careful not to expose your money to anyone watching. When it comes time to tip someone, have the tip ready in advance. Never exchange currency with individuals on the street who offer to "help" you. When using an ATM, it is wise to withdraw money in small amounts.
Other Safety Advice for Females Studying Abroad
Tourists are easy targets for theft, so try to be inconspicuous. Carry a pocket-sized map so you look less like a tourist and if you need directions, your best bet is to ask women and families. You may find that referencing your "husband" is a useful fiction, both for discouraging the romantically inclined and for explaining a male friend who may be accompanying you. Every study abroad student should avoid bringing strangers back to his or her place of residence. The place where you stay should be a safe haven for you, and taking people you don't know well to your new home is not the best idea.
In situations where poverty and social disparities are evident, women should refrain from exhibiting jewelry that appears expensive, whether it is in reality or not. Some unmarried women traveling abroad, however, opt to wear a fake wedding ring to discourage male attention. It is best to wear loose-fitting clothing in neutral colors, as well as to attempt to dress like the local women. Flashy and expensive clothing will cause you to stand out, which may not be the best decision from the point of view of safety.
The most common type of crime encountered overseas is pickpocketing. Pickpockets often have highly developed strategies: they may work in pairs, and also may ask you for directions or otherwise distract you. Even though you may wish to be helpful to others while studying abroad, do so cauciously.
This article can make the idea of studying abroad seem daunting. Remember though, every destination requires a different level of vigilance, and it may be advised to keep this in mind when choosing a program. Study abroad should be a time to step outside of one's comfort zone-you may find a moment in which you adjusted to an uncomfortable situation to be one of great personal growth and insight-but female students especially should balance their zest for the new and challenging with awareness of when a situation has moved from challenging to unsafe.
Luckily, there are people who have already thought through these issues and are available to help you navigate them successfully. Most study abroad programs and host universities take extensive measures to ensure the safety of their students. For more information on safety precautions for females studying abroad, check out the publication Authentic Ireland Travel's article "A Woman's Guide to Safe Travel"online. It provides female students with detailed information on health and safety while traveling overseas. These and other resources will help you thrive in your destination country and ensure that safety is a consideration, not an obsession.
By Sara E. Savage