How to deal with street harassment abroad

08 September 2016

Solo travellers are often put off going abroad through fear of bumping into the infamous street seller. Here we outline tips for avoiding such situations.

Wolf-whistles, hisses and stares. Being followed down a darkly-lit alleyway by a creepy-looking guy. Racial or LGBT abuse. Aggressive street-peddlers who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

A clattering catcall in a foreign language from a passing van. The queasy feeling somebody has just brushed up against you in a crowded marketplace…  

It all amounts to street harassment and being subjected to it can be a horrifically unpleasant experience that can seriously put a dampener on your holiday.

Yet, despite street harassment being commonplace in many countries, it’s a largely neglected misdemeanour with little legislation in place to address it.

Although much-publicised horror stories have abounded in recent years it’s important to remember such incidents are rare and should never deter you from travelling solo. 

It’s not the norm

In most countries, you’re more likely to be greeted by friendly and generous locals, many abiding by a sense of seemingly bygone chivalry towards women, rather than hostile or predatory characters.

Most people who strike up a conversation don’t want to fleece you of your wallet or purse five minutes later – in many cultures, they’re just naturally sociable and curious why a lone female traveller and/or a foreigner who looks different from them, is visiting their country.

But that doesn’t make locals hollering at you in a foreign language while you’re walking down an unknown street any less threatening.

The best piece of advice is to always exercise common sense and trust your instincts. Here are some other tips to help you if the unlikely sceptre of harassment happens on your travels…

Read our top tips for travelling alone

The essentials

There are some essential things you can do as a solo traveller to avoid/deal with certain situations.

Be confident  

Walk with aplomb and feign confidence: you’re much more likely to be targeted if you look confused or lost. In developing countries, never flaunt your wealth and stay alert at night-time or in less populated areas.

To fend off street-hawkers, learn phrases for “I want nothing” (it’s “No quiero nada” in Spanish and “non voglio niente” in Italian). Wear sunglasses to deflect unwanted eye contact.  Above all, trust your instincts – if you turn the corner and detect a seedy atmosphere, you’re probably right.

Dealing with verbal abuse

If you’re subjected to verbal harassment – whether it’s sexual, racial, religious or xenophobic – the best policy is always to ignore it.

It might seem unnerving, but by refusing to dignify their comments with a remark, the person who has been dishing out the catcalls and insults will usually get bored and stop.

If anybody proffers their hands, never shake them or engage in any body contact whatsoever. Likewise, never accept gifts from strangers on the street.

Related: Solo travel: street scams to watch out for on holiday.

Dealing with physical abuse

For serious confrontations or any sign of physical contact, don’t be afraid to kick up a fuss. The nonprofit organisation Stop Street Harassment suggests identifying the harasser.

Shouting out words similar to, “You weirdo! You’re touching my bum! That’s harassment!” should shame the perpetrator and rally bystanders to come to your aid.

In foreign countries, try learning words and phrases to shame any potential attackers. For example, shouting “Che schifo!” in Italy should embarrass any harassers, while bellowing a loud “Imshi” in Egypt will draw attention to any stray hands. 

Act tough too – if you are attacked, don’t apologise or be quiet. Try not to lose your temper either, as the assailant could respond with violence.

Dealing with the creepy stalker 

If you suspect you’re being followed by somebody and can’t give them the slip, head to the nearest public place, such as a restaurant or hotel lobby.

Either get a taxi from there to your destination or get the receptionist to call the police if the hanger-on is still lingering outside.

Reporting the incident

Report any abuse to the police. There are various phone apps that will enable you to do this should you be unable to find an officer.

If you are in the US, download the Hollaback! app. In India, use the Safecity website. In Egypt, use HarassMap.

Other precautions

It’s important to take into account things like local culture and be aware of certain destinations that may be renown for trouble.  

Modify your dress towards the local culture 

In some patriarchal and conservative religious countries, solo women can expect some verbal aggravation. But by making adjustments to your clothing (sadly, those miniskirts and see-through tops will have to remain in the suitcase), you will draw less attention to yourself.

In Muslim countries, dress modestly by covering shoulders, cleavage and knees with long sleeves, trousers and skirts. Covering your head in a scarf will also make you stand out less.

In some parts of Africa, solo female travellers stand out because they look so different to local women, many of whom wear traditional clothing or unassuming western clothes.

Because this deviates so much from the norm, some men view this as provocative. Cover up your midriff and legs unless you want to be the recipient of unwanted staring.  

Dressing conservatively is also considered respectful in India, where a 2013 UN Women survey found 75 per cent of men agreed with the statement, ‘women provoke by the way they dress’.

Again, eschew shorts and sleeveless shirts in favour of ankle-length skirts. Try wearing a ‘dupatta’ (long scarf) to ward off more attention.

Read our tips for solo female travellers

Avoid certain destinations

If you are travelling alone, take the same precautions you would in any other large city. Avoid wandering around late at night. Be wary in the areas surrounding train stations when it’s dark.

Strike off notorious enclaves such as Mexico City’s Tepito and favelas in Rio De Janeiro from your itinerary. Bypass testosterone-ridden events such as street protests or sports celebrations. 

Be vigilant during busy festivals too. Certain events, i.e. the evening of  Eid al-Fitr in Egypt, are known for an increase in harassment towards woman.

Public transport

If you’re female and feel uncomfortable on public transport, try to sit near another woman. In some cities such as Tokyo, Cairo and Rio de Janeiro, women’s carriages are available on the metro systems.

Avoid city buses during peak times, as the crowded charabancs make them prime incubators for gropers. Should this happen, try gesturing to other people on the bus, particularly other women.  

If you’re a bystander  

Should you see somebody being harassed, you don’t have to immediately enter superhero mode.

Rather than intervening, try attracting the attention of a third party, particularly an authority figure (police officer, transport employee, venue/restaurant staff) or somebody who looks as if they could join forces with you.

Failing that, create a distraction, such as publicly ridiculing the assailant or warning them of your presence by coughing loudly (especially in dark streets).  

Other diversionary tactics include asking the harasser what the time is, or moseying up to the person being victimised, pretending you’re their friend, while acting oblivious to what is happening.

 Always try to record what is happening by pulling out your phone and filming footage of the incident and/or taking photos.

While things like street harassment can be off-putting when considering a holiday abroad, it’s important to remember that there are travel companies available who cater for solo travellers.

Saga Holidays offer a range of holidays and cruises tailored specifically for solo travellers

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.