[TW: this article discusses verbal harassment and sexual assault]
This series is a series of firsthand anecdotes from a seasoned solo traveler who has traveled to 50 countries over the past decade. Priyanka Juneja is also completing her MBA and Masters in International Studies from Wharton and is the founder of @hera.travel, a platform to empower women to travel fearlessly.
Cuba is a country where I was delighted to be telling my bucket list. beckons from colorful buildings and the promise of energy in the air. Of course, on my first day in Havana, I wanted to explore as much of the old town as possible – camera ready on my hip. However, the day did not go exactly as I had planned. I remember driving down a busy street that was drawn to the soft music from an open window, but stopped when I heard someone whistle in my direction. I considered turning around but kept walking, ignoring the calls that had been added to the pipes. The voices, indistinguishable from one another, melted into an exciting hum. And then a voice stood out from the others: “What’s the matter, woman? Can’t you compliment “I smiled ironically. Did he really think harassment and a compliment were one and the same?
Finding an anecdote for this introduction was harder than I thought. Not because I struggled to remember one, but because I had so many to choose from. The misnomer is that this only happens in certain countries and areas, and while there are places more known for being more known for harassment, it happens everywhere. I was recently in Montana and got molested so many times in a day that I was honestly confused as to what was drawing attention. I repeat, it happens everywhere.
My goal is to raise awareness of a grim truth and ultimately drive change. Women should never have to travel in fear.
What is the difference between compliment and harassment? I’ll explain by teaching you what a Piropo is. I learned the term Piropo when I was studying abroad in Spain. A Piropo should be a flattering comment or compliment. Here is an example: ¡Vaya! Mi madre nunca me dijo que las flores andaban! (My God! My mom never told me flowers can run!) It may seem like a stupid example, but I’m addressing it Piropos because my host mother in Seville always emphasized that it was not the words that you were told, but rather how they made you feel. A true Piropo is a compliment that is meant to make you smile and feel appreciated. It shouldn’t make you feel uncomfortable or even sick. What my host mother said stayed with me and it applies here. You may think the difference between compliment and harassment should be common knowledge, but not all is black and white. Forget what you may have been told and focus on how you are feeling. Does the comment make you feel uncomfortable? Do you feel threatened What is said and how is the tone? These are important questions to ask yourself.
I mentioned that harassment is everywhere and unfortunately it’s certainly a common part of traveling. I’m part of a facebook group called Girls love traveling, and I’ve seen daily posts about verbal and sexual assault. The days when these types of posts overwhelm my feed are the days when I feel especially downcast by the cruelty of the world. The reality is that whether you’re traveling alone or with other women, you may experience unwanted attention. There are targets that are notorious for harassment, especially towards women. I say this in order not to prevent anyone from traveling, on the contrary: My goal is to raise awareness of a grim truth and ultimately to promote change. Women should never have to travel in fear.
How do we fix this harassment problem?
Not only does high levels of harassment prevent single female travelers from experiencing all that a destination has to offer, it also discourages some women from visiting an area together. The first step towards future changes is awareness. I’ve shared travel stories with friends before and watched their eyebrows knit and confusion spread across their face. “Is that so common?” They ask me. “Yes it is.” And no, I’m not overreacting. In contrast to the man who called me on the street in Cuba, I know the difference between compliments and harassment.
Harassment of women while traveling is so common that almost every woman I know has at least one story to tell. Women’s safety can and should be everyone’s responsibility. And that’s why I founded Hera, a travel platform that is designed with security in mind. Through Hera, female travelers have access to safety guides, verified hotels, and a community of women traveling to the same place at the same time. It is a start to correcting this very problem.
Pro Traveler Corner
This section provides tips on what to do if you or a loved one is being harassed. Remember, this is not your fault. Nothing in this situation is your fault. You haven’t done anything to attract unwanted attention.
- Never question your fear
If something doesn’t feel right, get out. This is incredibly important when you are traveling in an unfamiliar area. It’s just not worth it.
- Ignore catcalls
Avoid contacting anyone while traveling as you may not be familiar with the culture or language and you may not want anything to be literally lost in translation.
- Go away without turning your back
When you feel threatened, you want to step away from the scene without taking your eyes off someone who may be trying to harm you.
- Speak out loud
If you can’t get away from the situation, be as loud as you can. You want to attract the attention of everyone nearby who can help.