My parents were, to say the least, shocked when I first told them I was moving to Colombia for my year abroad. If I remember correctly, my dad instantly suggested I take up self-defence classes, whilst my mum basically just stood there with her mouth wide open. A lot of people reacted similarly when I told them I was moving to a country with a city that previously held the title, named by some, as the most dangerous in the world – but I eventually noticed that these well-meaning concerns normally came from people who had never stepped foot in Colombia, or even Latin America. Whenever someone reacted with, “You’re going to have the best time!” or “I’m so jealous”, it was an instant giveaway that they already had experience of what this amazing country offers.
The concerns I had were not completely unfounded, however. Latin America’s reputation as being dangerous for women is based on some very real findings. Nonetheless, it is important to note that to homogenise all Latin American countries and regions as being equally dangerous would be careless and ignorant, not to mention detrimental to the reality of this vast continent’s identity. Each country is different, carrying its own customs, traditions and tropes, which is why it is important to treat your preparation for each destination with individual research. This article is a great place to start in order to familiarise yourself with some of the common issues that women travelling in Latin America can face and, what’s more, how to deal with them.
Sadly, this is a reality in most places, both at home and away. In places with a warmer climate in which you might wear fewer clothes, this could potentially spur on catcalling. I struggled with the dilemma of not wanting to be harassed but also not wanting to compromise myself because of a few foul-mouthed individuals. I’ve even heard of women wearing wedding rings to deter predatory men, but these are personal decisions and you’ll have to figure out if they work for you. In a similar vein, I also found I was bothered less when I was with a male, or even in a group. Whilst I’m not suggesting you need to walk around with an entourage of men in order to feel safe, it’s important to be aware that being alone can make you more of a target.
Although it can sometimes feel intimidating and disconcerting in a foreign country, particularly if you can’t understand the language – it’s important to understand that catcalling often comprises of empty words. The most important thing you can do is ignore what’s being said. Any time I’ve ever responded, whether it’s with an angry look or a heated outburst, some view this as encouragement to pester you more. Walking around with earphones in all the time allowed me to block out any bother and get on with my day without being irritated by some bored people looking to get a reaction out of me.
This is definitely a reality no matter where you are, but travellers are often more likely to become targets. Obvious things like avoiding wearing overtly expensive jewellery or clothes, and not getting your phone out in public, particularly in busy cities, will reduce your chances of being targeted. Also, be sure to always keep your bag on you at all times; if you’re at a table, wrap it around your legs or leave it on your lap. Never leave valuable items out on a table either as these can easily be swiped.
In the more serious situations of muggings, the overarching piece of advice any savvy traveller will tell you is to give them everything and get away. It’s been repeated time and time again but doesn’t lose its importance: your safety is more important than any possessions you might have.
The very worrying threat of having your drink spiked is a global phenomenon and definitely not exclusive to Latin American countries. However, being in an unfamiliar place and meeting new people can make it even more dangerous, which is why it’s important to be aware of the risk. Although women are typically the main target, it isn’t uncommon for men to be targeted too. Motives can range from anything, such as making you an easier victim of petty theft, to sexual abuse. The most important factors are how to avoid it, the first signs of being drugged, and what to do if the situation does arise.
Whilst it may seem like the last thing that should be on your mind when you’re trying to relax on a night out, it’s important to be vigilant. Keep an eye on your drink, using a lid where you can. You should obviously never accept drinks from strangers, and unless you know someone really well, always go to the bar with them to get your drink. Unfortunately, you can sometimes take all of the precautions and it may still happen, which is why it’s important to be aware of the symptoms. For example, if you’ve only had a couple of drinks but still feel really drunk, let someone you trust know. Research has shown that by sticking with your mates you’ll enormously reduce your chances of harm.
Despite all of this, these incredible countries are so much more than the issues I’ve outlined here, which is why it’s so sad that this problematic aspect of the culture dominates so much of the narrative surrounding this region. This article is not intended to frighten all women from ever visiting Latin America, but instead to make sure that you’re aware and prepared before heading off. Everyone should have the chance to experience this wonderful area of the world, regardless of their gender.