Safety is always a primary concern for students and their families. Many students will be living or visiting major metropolitan cities around the world where problems associated with high population density urban living (i.e. crime, crowded public transportation, pollution, lack of privacy, etc.) are common. Your personal safety is very important to keep in mind in these situations. Because many US students are not used to "big city" living, and because you will be on unfamiliar ground both physically and culturally and, in many cases communicating in another language, the most important thing you can do is to familiarize yourself with the particular aspects of your new host country and city.
Considering Safety Issues
Your preparation should actually begin before your departure. Read as much as you can about your host country and if possible the city in which you will be living (see Know Your Hosts). Talk to students who have been to the city or country you are going to, and to students who are from there. Find out what challenges were posed to previous participants and how they dealt with those challenges. At your program's orientation sessions, pay close attention to information regarding safety precautions. Upon arrival, learn which areas of the city are considered safe for your housing and living. Become familiar with the best means of transportation and well traveled routes as you go about your daily business.
The US Department of State has provided the following excellent information for traveling abroad:
International Travel (All links below are accessible through this link)
Living Abroad Tips
Tips for Travelling Abroad
A Safe Trip Abroad
Awareness of Your Environment
The key to personal safety is being aware of your environment at all times and being "street smart". You also need to be aware of misconceptions about foreign lands that may make you feel safer than you truly are. These include:
-Crime doesn't happen in a particular country and/or region
-Women are revered and therefore no one would harm a woman
-Americans are invulnerable because of the strength of our nation
-Activities considered unsafe at home (such as hitchhiking) are safe in other countries.
Remember, these are not true. To better take care of yourself and your belongings:
- Always, we repeat, ALWAYS lock up every door and window in your lodgings. Guard your keys. Enough said.
- Baggage insurance is always a good idea, but there are additional and inexpensive ways to protect your luggage. First and foremost, remember to label your bags on the outside and on the inside!!! Padlocks are also an inexpensive investment that may protect your belongings. If nothing else, they will keep your luggage closed. They will also ease the minds of protective security agents at the airport. Always lock your luggage before checking in. In addition, when leaving a hotel room or hostel for any reason, always keep your luggage locked and the room in reasonably neat order so that, if you are a victim of a burglary or other unauthorized entry, you will immediately be aware of it.
- Ask questions about social etiquette.
- Avoid questionable parts of the city, especially at night and when alone.
- When using a public telephone, stand facing out so you can see your surroundings.
- Don't wear expensive clothing or jewelry. Don't carry valuables if you can avoid it.
- Don't give personal information to strangers. Be extremely cautious about inviting casual acquaintances into your home or room.
- If you feel uncomfortable in a given situation, listen to your gut instincts and remove yourself. If you feel unsafe, you probably are. It is better to make a social error than to be assaulted.
- Be aware of your personal space. You have the right to reserve that space. Keep a strong body language. When you're walking, keep your back straight, hold your head high and walk with a determined stride- even if you're not sure where you are going. Keep glancing to your left and right so that you know who and what is nearby.
- Keep your head up! Even though the sites might be breathtaking, remain aware of your immediate surroundings and possible dangers. Attackers are more likely to prey on people who appear preoccupied or confused, so the first rule is to stay alert and aware of your surroundings at all times.
- If someone stops you and asks you for directions or the time, step away at least two and a half arm lengths, stand with your feet shoulder width apart, and speak with a neutral but authoritative toe. Never take your eye's off the person's face and hands. In the second it takes to look at your watch, a mugger can make his move. Just lift your watch to eye level.
- Get someone's attention, if you need it. If someone follows or threatens you,
head for the nearest well lit, busy spot
-- perhaps an intersection or doorway. Another option may to step into the street
so that passing vehicles can see you.
Many problems can be avoided in the initial stages by an assertive response. Let potential assailants know immediately that their intentions will not be tolerated. You can send an assertive message non verbally by using strong, confident body posture; maintaining eye contact and by establishing physical limits. Verbally, you can say "No!" or "Stop!" in English or the local language. Use a strong, loud tone of voice. You can also yell (not scream) to call attention to your situation.
If someone is trying to take advantage of you in a social situation, yelling
may not be called for - but do express your limits clearly at the first sign
of trouble and leave the situation if you're feeling confused or endangered.
If an assault occurs, the decision of whether to physically resist will depend
on many variables, including your individual abilities and those of your assailant(s).
Only you can decide at the time if resistance is the best choice. If
you do decide to fight back, commit your 100% to this course of action. Consider
your body (hands, feet, etc.) as your most reliable "weapons" and
aim for vulnerable areas of the attacker's body. REMEMBER: Survival is your
most important goal. Submission is always
a valid choice if that's how your instincts tell you to respond.
Building A Support System
One of your first priorities upon arrival in your host country is to identify and build a support system...Make a list of people you can trust to be supportive in an emergency. This list should include on-site program staff, their names, addresses and phone numbers. Keep this list with you at all times. Learn to correctly use the public telephones immediately upon your arrival. Learn to identify:
- police station, uniform, and car
- hospital and medical clinics
- crisis or hotlines where English is spoken.
- the English-speaking community around you, such as your school, the YMCA, local churches, or a local military base.
As in America, you may face discrimination of various sorts while you are abroad.
To make yourself aware of types of discrimination you may experience in your
host country, talk to both natives and other American students who have lived
there. We strongly encourage this research as being aware of your host country's
social norms may help you to cope with discrimination, especially that which
may affect your personal safety. The Studyabroad.com
handbook addresses ethnic and racial concerns as well as being lesbian,
gay or bisexual abroad. Another excellent resource for gay, lesbian, bisexual,
and transgendered international and study abroad students is the NAFSA
Lesbigay SIG web site.
Harassment issues may be particularly difficult to identify abroad, where cultural norms are often different than those in the U.S. A fair rule of thumb is to assume that sexual harassment consists of any unwanted sexual advances and/or behavior of a verbal, visual, written, or physical nature in living arrangements and educational or work environment.
Sexual harassment may include:
- derogatory remarks made about one's clothing, body, or sexual activities based on gender
- disparaging remarks, jokes and teasing based on gender
- visual materials or pictures which unnecessarily sexualize the environment, or which students find offensive
- subtle pressure for sexual activity and/or dates
- unnecessary and unwanted touching, patting or pinching
- demanding sexual favors accompanied by overt threats concerning such things as one's job, grades, letters of recommendation, etc.
- verbal harassment or abuse
- e-mail and/or any electronic communications which include any of the above
- physical assault
Students should trust their judgment and intuition. If a situation makes them
uncomfortable, it needs to be addressed. Students
should seek help from their program authorities for counseling and advice on
how to remedy the situation.
Especially for Women
Women may experience some particular difficulties while abroad. Despite the fact that the rate of violence towards women, including rape, is higher in the US than in many other countries, the mere fact of facing the unfamiliar can raise your anxiety level. This is compounded by language and cultural differences, and by the unfortunate fact that people in other countries often have acquired their knowledge of US women through distorted and stereotyped media images such as those used in TV, ,movies and advertising. American women have acquired a reputation for enjoying a type of lifestyle which contrasts with more traditional behavior in many countries. In addition, cultural differences can extend to body language. US students may encounter people who do not understand their friendliness with strangers as simply a gesture of friendship. A smile, a hairstyle, the way you carry yourself, eye contact, and the distance between people talking can have profoundly different interpretations from culture to culture. Even a smile to a stranger may be misunderstood.
There is much you can do to prepare yourself to face a range of possible situations, from sexual comments or harassment, to the rare extreme of a physically threatening situation. Before leaving, take the time and initiative to learn as much as possible about your host country's language, religion, customs, and appropriate dress for women. Talk to women and men who have visited your host country and, if possible, talk with people from your host country. The more familiar you are with your new country's customs, the more respect you will earn and the more you will break down stereotypes. Such knowledge will increase your confidence and independence , which are important to your personal safety. Continue this learning in your host country. Talk to local women. Follow examples of culturally appropriate dress and demeanor. Ask about women's organizations. While you can't change the culture around you, you can use your friends (American and host nationals) as a safe haven for developing coping skills and venting frustrations.
You should not use cultural differences as an excuse to endure or excuse verbal or physical abuse; depending on the situation, remove yourself as quickly as possible, confront the person, or ask for support from others. Trust your intuition and feelings. If you are offered a ride and you feel some anxiety, decline the offer. If you are in a setting that makes you nervous, leave immediately. Don't be persuaded to do something your instincts warn you against. Precautions also apply to social situations. Most likely, you will find everyone you meet to be interesting and interested in you. However, you cannot make judgments about your safety based on another person's looks, appearance or financial status. Some situations may require you to be assertive and say "no" in a convincing manner.
Only you can determine how best to handle a situation. However, if you prepare
yourself before your departure, you will find
that you will have more options for dealing with situations.
Don't be a victim. Try to minimize your "foreigness" through your
actions and appearance in order to avoid being targeted as a naive tourist by
pickpocketers. Take with you only those credit cards and documents you need.
Once abroad, decide at the beginning of each day which credit cards, documents
and other valuable you really need to take with you. Put the rest in a safe
place. While in your host town or city, lock your money, travelers checks, jewelry,
passport, and other personal possessions in your room. When traveling, carry
money, your passport, and other valuables in a money belt inside your clothing--don't
leave them in a hotel room or hostel. Don't keep your wallet in a hip pocket
and if you insist on carrying a purse, keep it tucked tightly under your arm
or looped diagonally across your chest when on the street. For good measure,
keep it on the side away from passing motorcyclists. Divide your money, credit
cards and other valuables among several pockets. Don't leave valuables in a
car. It's far more tempting for a thief to break a car window than to assault
someone. If you are robbed but have one credit card left, you can usually get
a cash advance from any bank issuing the
card. Take precautions (see Money
Matters) so that in the event that you are robbed, you are well-equipped
to deal with the situation and move on.
A Final Request
PLEASE DON'T HITCHHIKE (which is defined as accepting rides from strangers, whether or not you use your thumb to get the ride). We'd prefer that you not hitchhike under any circumstances, no matter what anybody tells you, no matter if "it's perfectly safe," and especially not if "everybody does it!" It isn't perfectly safe, and everybody does not do it.