“We tell women what not to do to avoid being attacked instead of telling men not to attack women.”
— Jessica Nabongo, who hopes to become the first black woman to visit every country in the world
Decades ago, in the 1970s, Israel was grappling with a spate of violent rapes against women. During a cabinet meeting, a solution was suggested: that women be placed under a curfew until the attackers were caught. Golda Meir, then the prime minister, wasn’t having it. Men are the ones at fault, she fired back. “If there is to be a curfew, let the men stay at home, not the women.”
Meir’s words were the first to come to mind this week as I read a new article — “Adventurous. Alone. Attacked.” — by my colleagues Megan Specia and Tariro Mzezewa. In it, they reported on the phenomenon of solo female travelers, whose numbers have skyrocketed, but not without a dark cloud of gender-based violence, some of it deadly.
News of women — often young, often Western — being attacked abroad has raised hard questions about how the world is greeting the shift. “There is no clear global picture of the scale of violence against female solo travelers,” Specia and Mzezewa wrote.
As Jessica Nabongo, who hopes to become first black woman to visit every country in the world, put it: It’s still idealistic to think women can move through the world with the same ease as men. “We tell women what not to do to avoid being attacked instead of telling men not to attack women,” she said, echoing Meir.
Here’s what three other women had to say about their harrowing experiences with solo travel.
“They have a responsibility to tell tourists of all the risks.”
Laura Jaime’s best friend, Carla Stefaniak, was murdered in Costa Rica while visiting alone in November to celebrate her 36th birthday. Jaime said the local authorities should have done more to publicize the risks to women in the country.
Stefaniak was the third foreign woman killed in Costa Rica in three months, and at least 14 women were killed in gender-based violence from January to August 2018. In September, the government had declared violence against women a national problem.
Jaime said the attacker had underestimated the determination of Stefaniak’s family, who not only filed a lawsuit accusing Airbnb of negligence (Carla had rented through the service), but are also fighting for justice in Costa Rica’s courts.
“The attack, the process, it broke me down. But I had to find strength inside myself.”
Vasilisa Komarova was assaulted while camping in Bolivia in 2017 and left for dead. She was in her mid-30s. The place, she had been told, was safe.
She was met with indifference from the local authorities, but she refused to continue her travels or return home without getting justice. With the help of the British Embassy, she was able to connect with an advocate who helped her begin the legal fight against her attackers.
A year later, she watched as the three men were sentenced to a combined 42 years in prison.
“I don’t feel defeated.”
Hannah Gavios, 26, was attacked while visiting Southeast Asia on her own in 2016, causing her to tumble from a cliff and fracture her spine. The man sexually assaulted her while she lay helpless for 11 hours.
She spent months hospitalized and had to learn to walk again. Her attacker was eventually arrested and sentenced to five years in prison. Despite that horror, Gavios says she continues to move forward and travel alone and has since become a yoga instructor and learned Krav Maga, a self-defense system. Last fall, she completed the New York City Marathon on crutches.
She says she doesn’t want her ordeal to scare women from the rich experience of traveling solo. “Rather than horrifying people,” she said, “I want people to go into it with a little more bravery and a little more knowledge.”
Have you ever traveled alone in the world? If so, how did your gender affect your plans and your comfort level? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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For Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting stories of trailblazing women you may not know, but should. We’ll bring you two women each week in this newsletter. Head over to our Instagram for daily posts.
Bessie Stringfield, nicknamed the Motorcycle Queen of Miami, was a dispatch rider for the United States Army in the 1940s — at a time when motorcycle riding was considered “unladylike.”
At 16, Bessie got her first bike and rode across the country, dazzling family and friends with stories of being chased off the road in the Jim Crow South and carnival stunts on the Wall of Death. While other women were relegated to housework, Bessie revved and roared through Florida’s palm-tree-lined streets on her Harley-Davidson.