Should women travel alone?

Worldwide coverage of several high-profile violent incidents this year has pushed the topic of solo female travel into the forefront of public dialogue.

In January, New York City mother Sarai Sierra was killed while travelling independently in Istanbul, her body found near the city’s ancient walls in early February. In March, a Norwegian woman who reported being rapedwhile on business in Dubai was charged with having extramarital sex, perjury and drinking alcohol, and sentenced to 16 months in jail.

Reports of sexual assault and even gang rape have been recorded across India, including a British tourist jumping off her balcony in Agra in March to escape potential assault from a hotel owner. In the first three months of 2013, female visitors to India fell 35% compared to the previous year, according to the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India.

For many, the knee-jerk response has been to speak against women travelling alone, labelling it as shocking or unwise, especially in more conservative cultures where Western women travelling alone can face unjust stereotypes regarding promiscuity. Jodi Ettenbergtravel/food blogger at Legal Nomads, said the number of women reaching out to her with concerns about travelling solo has spiked.

But discussing the subject of solo female travel as it relates to such incidents is a faulty simplification, Ettenberg wrote in a post published shortly after Sierra’s death. The real issue is violence against women, regardless of where they are and where they are from.

World Health Organization statistics from October 2013 show that violence against women is a worldwide issue that can transpire anywhere and with anyone. The majority of victims in India’s spate of sexual assaults were locals, and when a group of vacationing Spanish women were raped in Mexico in February, their male travel companions were tied up by the assailants.

Additionally, with today’s global connectivity, it’s not always that there are more cases of sexual assault; it’s sometimes that more people are hearing about it. In India for example, sexual assault was underreported before – and in rural areas likely still is.

Elisa Doucette, a freelance writer and editor who penned a piece about solo female travel for Forbes, said she researches potential dangers and specific customs before leaving for a destination. She also has taken self-defence classes. Ettenberg said she believes in respecting local culture and norms as much as possible, but still there are some places she cannot envision visiting because of how she might be perceived by locals. “As much as I would love to study the history and food of the Gulf States and very traditional Middle Eastern cultures, I haven’t gone,” Ettenberg said.  “As a woman you can’t run around asking the questions you want to be asking, generally speaking.”

While the public dialogue often focuses on the dangers of women travelling independently, there are places in which it’s also inspiring change. The string of incidents in India incited such strong protests that the Delhi government established a 24-hour hotline for women at the end of 2012 and passed legislation in March 2013 to better protect women against sexual violence. Services like buses and cabs, as well as female-only hotel floors, have also become increasingly common in the country.

Sites like Meetup have become home to a number of grassroots resource and support groups for female travellers; many countries offer government resources dedicated to the safety of women travelling abroad; and guidebooks often include sections dedicated to female travel.

“Women travel for countless reasons, whether to discover new frontiers, pursue business opportunities, or simply to rest and relax – not unlike men,” the Government of Canada’s Her Own Way – A Woman’s Safe-Travel Guide reads. “But when it comes to health and security, and how travellers are affected by the religious and cultural beliefs of the foreign countries they visit, there’s a huge difference between women and men. The truth is that women face greater obstacles, especially when travelling alone.”

Blogs like Ettenberg’s have become a base for fielding concerns and queries about travelling as a woman, and both Ettenberg and Burton spoke of the advantages they have experienced, including access and trust, particularly in conservative cultures where women’s and men’s duties are delineated.

Burton writes of pouring tea for Turkish grandmothers and being close to bridal parties in Tbilisi, Georgia, while Ettenberg has been invited into kitchens to help prepare meals with women and their children in Jordan, where men are forbidden. “I always say, ‘I travel in the body I’ve got,’” Ettenberg said.