A few years ago while traveling through Argentina, I had a couple of terrible experiences that almost made me abandon traveling all together.
I was sexually assaulted. Twice. In some of the oddest circumstances, that I still can't really wrap my head around.
The first was a friend of a friend.
There were about 10 of us at a local hostel, sharing a bottle of red wine and laughing in rapid Spanish. One man in the group never once spoke to me, nor did I feel him paying any particular attention to me, but as I walked out the door of the hostel, he grabbed my hand, jerking my body back inside. In a flash, he threw me up against the wall, and pushed himself on me, forcing his hands under my clothes.
In the span of two seconds I realized how tightly he had me pinned, and my only choice in that moment was to allow him access to my body, and then work to worm my way out from beneath him. I didn't have the physical space to kick him. I couldn't fight him off.
It felt like I was there forever. It was a terrifying feeling, having someone groping you without permission while they whisper, "you're coming home with me," over and over in your ear.
Not a question -- a statement.
I remember thinking: What did I do? Did I cause this? What signal could I have possibly given him that would make him think I'm interested? He had a girlfriend, and we didn't even speak! I couldn't understand it.
When my friends came back to find me, I took my chance to rush out the door. But the feeling of violation stayed with me.
Then It Happened Again
A few weeks later, I was on a long-distance, 22-hour bus ride from Buenos Aires to San Carlos de Bariloche with two other friends.
An employee on the bus named Christian started talking to me, and I made sure to send clear signals that I wasn't interested in anything more than friendly small talk.
Hours later, after several trips to the bathroom, I went downstairs again to attend to some lady business and realized there was a hole in the bathroom door that someone could totally look through.
I put my eye to the hole in the door, and his beady, squinty eye was looking right back at me.
In some ways, this continues to be more of a violation than being physically molested. The idea that someone could find pleasure in watching you at your most vulnerable is disgusting to me. I curse my body everyday for that memory because he saw me dealing with things that only women have to, and it still makes me sick to my stomach thinking about it.
So, what did I do? I screamed. Loudly. I woke up everyone on the bus. It was 2 a.m., and I was sobbing, waving my arms around and describing the horror to my friends. I felt so violated, so ashamed of my body.
And then I got angry.
I made sure that every single woman on that bus knew that there was a hole in the door and that he was a pervert who liked to watch women use the bathroom. I fumbled with my words, trying to find the translation for pervert in Spanish (it's pervertido, I later found out). I cried.
Of course, he denied it up and down. When I told every other bus employee, all they did was ask me, "Are you sure?"
And this is the painful thing about being a foreign woman in South America (or anywhere): At times it feels like you don't have a voice.
Though I complained to his supervisor at company headquarters at 5 a.m., I had to remain on the bus for another 18 hours while he fed me meals and looked at me knowingly like we had something special.
These experiences, combined with a few others (half of which involved bus employees) almost made me give up on traveling and head home to the comfort and safety of my boyfriend and my nice, stable life.
But I kept going, and I'm glad I did.
I have been running the ship at Go! Girl Guides, which publishes travel guidebooks for women, for almost three years now and I haven't spoken publicly about this until now. Why?
This has to stop.
Too many women are victims of sexual assault while traveling, because being foreign makes you vulnerable. The barrier in communication, the lack of structure and consequences, the fact that it's "not your country"-all of these things make you a prime target for assault.
Does this mean it will happen to you if you travel? Of course not.
I firmly believe that most people in the world are good, but the best thing we can do as women is to support one another by sharing these types of stories so that others may become more aware.
And that's exactly what we're doing with the first-ever Women's Travel Fest, which Go! Girl Guides is hosting in New York City on March 8, 2014. We'll be discussing women's travel openly and honestly at the festival, touching upon everything from traveling as a solo female in the middle east, to traveling with kids, and much more.
So how can you keep yourself safe abroad? What can you do if you find yourself in this situation? Read on to find out:
What to Do If You're Sexually Assaulted While Traveling
▪ Find Support: If you can, try to find someone you know to support you. Unfortunately, in countries where police corruption is common, it's not always the best solution to turn to the police. If you need to, try talking to your hotel or hostel staff, a medical professional, or someone at a local women's center.
▪ Make noise. Make a lot of noise. In my case, the only resolve I felt was the public shaming placed on Christian by everyone else on the bus.
▪ Get Help: If you need to, try to contact the nearest sexual assault service or crisis line. This may be available through your embassy.
▪ Remember That This is not your Fault. That's something I think I still struggle with.
▪ Utilize Local Resources: If you need medical attention, be sure to seek it immediately. The availability of resources will vary from country to country, and from city to city, but help is available.
▪ Process: If you're still struggling with the awful feelings that come after an assault, try writing. I wrote pages and pages of poems, notes, and angry black letters in the wake of the bus incident. It helps me to process. Can't write? Paint. Do yoga. Stretch. Run. Do whatever you need to do to help get the ugliness out from inside of your chest.
I hope that none of you are ever assaulted while traveling, but the truth is, it happens. Sometimes assaults are done at the hands of locals, other times it's your fellow travelers. In any situation, it's never ok.
Our mission here at Go! Girl Guides is to empower women to travel the world, and to give them the tools they need to stay safe. People are mostly good, and experiences abroad are mostly positive. Be aware while traveling, yes, but don't forget to enjoy all of the beauty and wonder that comes with taking on the world.