The recent spate of horrific sex attacks on female travellers in India have highlighted a problem which as existed for many years. There have been numerous other attacks but the ferocity and aggression involved resulting in the death of one victim has received worldwide condemnation. Extensive media coverage has fuelled the feelings of revulsion aimed at the sub-continent.
“Reported rape is up and yet convictions are down”
The violent nature of the attacks, involving gang rape and even violation with a steel rod, it appears to be a hate crime. This aggression aside what seems shocking to many outsiders is the perceived apathy of the government. Although the suspected perpetrators have been taken into custody so were the suspects in the rape and murder of a 15 year old British school girl and yet after several years there still hasn’t been any conviction. Reported rape is up and yet convictions are down.
Ever understanding the reasons for these attacks is unlikely but an understanding of the environment in which they occur is worth some discussion. Some comprehension of the culture may reduce the risk of becoming a target for aggression.
Sexual aggression and violence against travellers is not restricted to India. There are other parts of the world where there is a culture of violence and are listed as ‘high risk’ destinations by western embassies and governments. Violent theft and even kidnapping are hazards which too many travellers are becoming familiar with. Often perceived as wealthy and easy targets for criminals, safety is a major concern for every world traveller.
It is an unfortunate fact however that women have greater reason for concern than men and female solo travel has been the topic of numerous articles recently.
One of the reasons many travel is to experience a different culture however this gulf in values and understanding can be the surprising cause of these attacks. An alarming but enlightening article recently published in The Guardian provides some insight into some possible reasons for the attacks in India. The upbringing of males and females is entirely alien to that which we are accustomed to. On one hand the young men interviewed speak of respect for family then explain that women should remain at home after 6pm and seem to suggest that some women are actually asking to be attacked.
Their comments may seem reprehensible but the open manner in which the men involved seemed prepared to discuss it is possibly more alarming. These sensible, respectable and decent young men appear to display some acceptance of these attacks. The underlying tone seems to suggest that they feel in some circumstances rape is actually justifiable.This is a huge culture gap.
However inaccurate or misconceived these comments may seem they are indicative of the attitude of some elements of male society on the sub-continent. There are also men protesting against these abhorrent acts however the group interviewed appears to be sufficiently representative of the male population.
“travellers are guests in another culture and ambassadors of our own”
It is likely that many of us have experienced a degree of inappropriate behaviour or code of dress in destinations which require both men and women to dress modestly.
On my last visit to India before boarding a train I witnessed an attractive young woman wearing in a bikini top and denim shorts both of which could be described as minimal making her way to the train. The local men (and 2 westerners) openly stared at her and the women blatantly cursed her every movement. Settling into a seat she was overheard to state “they will learn”. Her spunk maybe admirable but her common sense and attitude is not.
Travellers often proclaim the virtue of respecting other cultures but in a modern era of decreased tolerance this may have increased significance. Respecting the culture maybe even more important in terms of safety.
Respect is a two way street. Personal choice is a social imperative and expression and individuality of dress is of equal importance to many. Sensible compromise maybe required to prevent offence, be respectful of the culture and the culture should respect you back.
Ensure your next adventure is not your last
Research and planning before taking a journey has often received a degree of scorn from this site but having some knowledge and understanding of the culture is essential. There are numerous sources and heaps of detailed information available about almost every destination; the internet, guidebooks and government information sites are just a few. Apart from avoiding any unfortunate cultural faux pas knowing which areas to avoid and the values of the local culture should reduce the amount of risk the traveller is exposed to.
Prevention is better than the cure, avoiding potential difficult situations merely seems wise. A simple list of sensible measures is as follows:
Wear clothing which is appropriate to the environment. Bikinis are fine on the beach but if the locals are covered up around town, the respectful and wise traveller should too.
Know your limitations; stepping outside comfort zones is commendable but unnecessarily endangering yourself is not.
Avoid situations which may provide confrontation.
Get to know the destination prior to travelling and ask at the accommodation if there are any ‘high risk’ areas to avoid. Steering clear of these goes without saying.
Be aware of the local transport situation. If the risk of attack is heightened at certain times don’t use it. It maybe necessary to find alternative means of getting around if there are serious issues.
Do not advertise any tourist credentials. Keep expensive cameras, smartphones and other bling out of sight, don’t tempt the weak willed or desperate.
Where possible attempt to join up with other travellers when going out at night in high risk destinations.
If going out alone is the only option keep to public places and don’t accept invitations to out of the way parties.
Don’t appear a potential victim, attackers will be on the lookout for easy targets. They don’t relish the prospect of confrontation, appear confident and it is likely they will look elsewhere.
Remain observant, keep an eye out for potential problems; broken streetlights, gangs or groups, those acting suspiciously or attempting to conceal their identity.
If confronted by an assailant, try tor remain calm, hopefully they want nothing more than your valuables. Hand them over without argument, they are not worth risking your life for.
Carrying a spare wallet/purse filled with a small amount of cash, disused credit cards and a family photograph is a good ploy.
There isn’t any substitute for experience, serve out a form of travelling apprenticeship.
Hone instincts in less challenging destinations and make use of reliable tour operators for the first forays into more risky travel options. It will improve confidence and ensure the solo traveller is ready to safely experience any destination.
Experience can enable the traveller to recognise when to feel intimidated and walk away and when a situation is perfectly innocent.
Self defence is a skill and should be the absolute last resort, only to be used if an attack cannot be avoided by any other means and is imminent.
There isn’t any way these attacks can be condoned but it should be remembered that India is not the only destination where travellers and the local community are under threat of violence. Understanding that there are often cultural aspects to this aggression and how this can help to avoid becoming a victim is equally important.
The ability to read a situation and body language is one of the most useful skills an independent traveller can acquire. Being the victim of an act of violence is obviously traumatic but any unnecessary feelings of intimidation can also ruin a visit.
The debate regarding travel as a right or privilege maybe an on-going one but safe travel for all is indisputably a right. Those travellers with the necessary attributes and instincts will enjoy this right wherever they roam.