Central America, Politics, South America

Sexual harassment as a solo female traveller: my experiences in Latin America

Many people warned me that sexual harassment would be bad while travelling as a single girl in Latin America. Pffft, I said. They can’t be worse than the average bloke out on a Saturday night in the UK.

I was wrong. I want to say at the outset of this post that nothing that has happened to me while travelling in Latin America in the last few months is something that has never happened in the UK. However, it is the sheer frequency and ubiquitousness of sexual harassment on this continent that makes it hard to deal with, even if you’re pretty down to earth and used to dealing with shit.

If you’re another solo female traveller you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you are another woman thinking about travelling solo in Latin America, you absolutely should do it and not be put off by this. The fact that you are considering travelling alone means I know you are tough enough to deal with it. However, here is some of the stuff I have experienced while travelling in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama,  Costa Rica, and Nicaragua:

  • Constant catcalling. This is worse where I am living at the moment in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, than it has been anywhere else on my trip. I have not once left the house without being catcalled. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is- it’s happened on the way to work (at 8am), going to buy groceries at 11am, at lunch time, afternoon, early evening- and to be honest I just don’t go out at night alone here. It can happen up to thirty times a day. One time in Colombia, as I mentioned in my blog about that otherwise wonderful country, in one walk to the supermarket in the early evening (ten minutes each way) I was catcalled no less than THIRTY SIX times. It makes no difference what you’re wearing, either- whether it’s a dress, or jeans and a long shirt, it will happen. Usually I tune out and try to ignore it, occasionally I flip out and yell at them to fuck off, but it’s not advisable because they can get aggressive. During a city tour I saw one girl break down when a group of guys started on us and started screaming and swearing and crying at them to leave us the fuck alone. I can’t say I blame her. All the girls in that group had had the same experiences.
  • Following. This one is a bit more sketchy and one to be weary of. As much as, in theory, the idea of being apparently so irresistible (even while wearing a dress covered in three-day-old food stains, and being very hungover), that men feel the need to chase you down the street shouting mi Reina, mi Reina! (my queen) is pretty flattering, in reality it is pretty frightening. Men have followed me on foot, on bicycles, motorbikes, and in cars. Always be aware of your surroundings, and don’t walk around wearing headphones (though it can be tempting to drown out the catcalling).
  • Touching. This thankfully happens less frequently but it does happen, especially if you go out at night (though this is kind of the same as in the UK to be honest). Men, just because a girl likes to party does not mean she wants, or deserves, to be grabbed at. She does not necessarily want you just because she also happens to be there and you find her attractive.
  • Hair pulling. This is a weird new one that actually hasn’t happened at home but has happened a couple of times here. Apparently it’s part of the fascination with blondes. I’ve also had hair sniffing a couple of times. They’re really obsessed with blondes. I think the fact that the only images of white women- and especially blonde women- that you see here tend to be pornographic really doesn’t help.
  • Flashing. Men are so very proud to have willies. God, it’s pathetic, and when you’re with friends, it’s laughable, but when you’re on your own it can be a bit scary- I usually pretend I hadn’t noticed, and have noticed something in a window across the street and walk in the other direction.
  • The police will not help you. I once crossed a street to get away from some blokes that were harassing me, thinking that the police on the other side would keep things a bit safer. More fool me, they yelled out the same comment. Border officials are another one- I have yet to have my passport checked without the guy (it’s always a guy) making some unnecessary comment about by appearance.
  • Taxi drivers. People always advise solo women to take taxis rather than the bus, especially at night or in big cities. They’re usually right. But the taxi driver will very often hit on you too. Sit in the backseat if you can (otherwise they’ve tried to put an arm around me or a hand on my leg). If you’re in a ‘collective’ style taxi (that picks up other people) try to pick one with at least one other woman in it- a girl I know recently had to escape an attempted mugging/assault with three other men in the car she was in.
  • They don’t take no for an answer. To start, I was honest about my single status when asked. I didn’t see why I should have to pretend to be ‘taken’ by another man to be safe. With time it just became easier to pretend I had a boyfriend/husband to put them off, or they’d assume you were up for it. Sometimes, though, they just see it as a further challenge ‘but you know men in Peru/Colombia/Nicaragua have bigger dicks right? Yeah, right.

These are the more typical things. There have been other incidents that have been more frightening- a bus conductor who trapped me in the toilet on a night bus and tried it on until I was forced to fight past him and escape (and didn’t dare go to sleep for the rest of the night). An Ecuadorean guy who I thought was my friend, but when adding me on Facebook stole all my photos and fabricated a relationship between us.

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A guy on a bus just today asked why my husband hadn’t ‘beaten my ass’ for travelling on my own (he was not joking), said that travel and working in other countries was ‘not for the woman to do’ and when I said I wasn’t interested in husbands or anyone telling me what I could and couldn’t do, said ‘oh, so you’re easy then’, told me girls wouldn’t travel alone unless they were up for it, etc., etc…

It wears you down. You deal with it and you cope, because that’s what women have always done. Some days you laugh. Some days you flip out. Some days you cry.  It’s not just Latino men- like I’ve said, everything (except the toilet and weird facebook stalking thing) is something that has happened at home, too. But at home, although it’s not infrequent, it’s unusual to be harassed more than once in a day, and it’d be something I’d actually remark upon. In Latin America, if I had a pound for every time I was harassed, I’d be able to come home and buy a nice sized house outright in central London. And I wish I was exaggerating but I’m not.

Women the world over have a very long fight ahead of us to get to a point where we’re actually treated as equals, and as human beings, as a given.  That is all the feminist movement is asking for: to be able to exist as a person, and not be harassed, assaulted, and in extreme cases, killed, because you happened to be born female. Women in Latin America, where sexism is insipid thanks to the extremely machista, patriarchal culture, have a considerably more difficult time than we do in Europe. I will always stand in solidarity with them: it is why I came to this continent, to volunteer with an organisation which works on violence against women. However, we also need to work with men. To talk about masculinity and what it means, and what it has the potential to mean. So that men don’t think they need to assert their dominance over women to prove their sexual prowess; their worth as a man. So that the men who know already that it is not okay to assume you have ownership over, harass, or threaten women, actually will stand up and support us when they see things happening, rather than staying silent and staying part of the problem. So that men who don’t realise their behaviour is harassment understand how it feels to be treated in that way. How it makes you feel like you’re not even a person.

Women are tough. Female travellers in particular have to be badasses. But it’s not easy. So to my fellow travelling ladies- keep doing what you do. You rock. But we all know we can’t take our safety for granted, and that travelling as a solo girl is very different from travelling as a solo guy. So let’s all just be wary,  while living life to the full. Let’s support each other. Let us change what it means to be a woman in the world. Let us also help men challenge what it means to be men- for the better.

human rights, humanitarian crisis, Migrant crisis, people, Politics, Refugees

‘Dangerous migrants’- a portrait of the real former inhabitants of the Dunkirk refugee camp

How many more can we take? The ‘swarm’ on our streets! We must stop the migrant invasion!

These are real headlines from the Daily Mail concerning the refugees that have fled to our shores in increasing numbers in the last couple of years as a result of growing instability in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

There have always been global wars, violence, and instability, but there is no doubt in the last years the world seems to have got darker. Civil war, ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and further catastrophic bombing by intervening foreign powers, have forced more people than ever to flee their homes, lives, families, and friends, in search of safety in Europe.

In the mean-time the flux of new arrivals has made many people in the UK and the rest of Europe very afraid. It is understandable. Though I am proud to live in a multi-cultural country, and believe it is an inevitable result of our history of colonialism, followed by globalisation, and modern technology enabling easier freedom of movement, there is no doubt that the landscape of Britain has changed rapidly in recent decades. People have had to adapt to people from different countries, and cultures they struggle to understand, arriving in their neighbourhoods. There is a human instinct to be protective of your territory, and family. This fear is liable to be greater if you are already struggling, and people living in severe austerity as a result of the inequality within our own country are naturally more inclined to be concerned over competition for jobs, local resources, etc. Evidence has shown that refugees granted asylum in the UK are also most likely to be placed in the most impoverished areas, that are least able to cope with the growing demand. And in this environment, the media has capitalised on this anxiety to spread fear, suspicion, and hatred towards refugees. There has been a deliberate language choice to favour the term ‘migrants’; implying that these people have travelled for endless months, largely on foot and unsafely hidden in lorries, because they fancy a change of air, rather than because they are fleeing persecution and death in their own home countries.

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Having returned from volunteering at the Dunkirk refugee camp on the day it burned to the ground, I wanted to share the stories of some of the people that I met, to put some faces to this seemingly faceless threat, and show that these people are humans with lives and fears, and families, and hopes like all of us. No doubt, there were some very dangerous people on the camp; I have been honest in my previous blog about how afraid I felt of the tension within the camp, and the influence of criminal gangs. The majority, however, were normal people that have been victims of a tragic series of circumstances we can barely imagine having to live through. They include women. They include children. They include teenage boys. Good men trying to get by and keep their head down to avoid the violence in order to protect their families. Old men. All desperately looking for a safe home and to protect their loved ones.

I have changed names where I have known them in order to protect people’s identities.

Ariya is a young mother. She has a gentle, soft demeanour, and speaks English well. She has been married for two years and has a six month old baby; the cutest and most sweet natured thing you have ever seen, with big, questioning eyes, and long, soft lashes. She was forced to flee Iran with her husband shortly after her marriage. After months of travelling, she fell pregnant. Love will out in any circumstances. She carried her baby to term while living in the Calais Jungle. When she went in to labour, she was brought to a nearby French hospital to deliver the baby. After four days, mother and newborn infant were returned to the camp, in spite of the inhumane and unsanitary conditions. After Calais was closed, she was forced to go on the move again, carrying her baby, and ended up in the Dunkirk refugee camp. She always had a positive attitude considering everything, even though she worried for her baby, who cried at night and sometimes became ill in the cold conditions of their shelter (no more than a small and dark shed).

One thing that moved me was the way in which people still looked out for others, even though their own conditions were so bleak. Roza is a large, middle aged Kurdish lady, with a cheeky gleam in her eye and a wicked smile, in spite of her only having three remaining teeth. One day she grabbed my arm in her large hand, seemingly very concerned, and insistent to drag me off with her into the camp. Her husband joined us on the way to the shelter and with slightly more English, explained ‘not able work man, not good’. They took me to a disabled man who had become ill because he was so cold at night. Through signing they requested blankets to keep him warm at night, and we went back to the centre to find some. Roza was insistent that he must have the best of the ones we had.

A young couple. They sat on the high bank at the edge of the refugee camp looking down to the swampy, filthy water below that separated the camp from the motorway. There was fighting around them, children crying, the smoke from people’s cooking blowing everywhere. They held each other, and rubbed noses, and kissed.

Belen is a very young woman, a few years younger than me, who ties her hair each day into a tidy plait and studies very hard to learn English. Belen is one of those people who is beautiful because their personality and warmth shines out of their face; she has a constant, gentle smile, in spite of everything she has been through. She attended English classes every day, turning up with her pencil and notebook, learned quickly and remembered things instantly, and asked for extra homework to complete herself in her shelter in the afternoons.

A pregnant lady. She was asked if she thought it was a girl or a boy. She said, a boy. She hoped for a boy. She had a boy before, and he was eight. He was shot three times. The third bullet hit his heart and killed him. An eight year old boy.

The children that did make it as far as Dunkirk were very obviously struggling to cope with the trauma they had been through, severely damaging to anyone, let alone at such a young age.

The very small ones were so traumatised that some of them were unable to communicate. A boy of no more than two or three, whose eyes are depths of sadness, and who just stares , silently, or cries. He is unable to interact in any way, no matter how you try to talk to, play with, or comfort him.

The middle aged ones (between about 6 and 11) are sometimes like normal children. They play, and squabble, and are boisterous, and would run around having water fights. But they are also angry. They are frustrated where they are, and apart from the volunteer-run children’s centre, had no outlet for their emotions and energy. They have also not had the chance to go to school or have an education. I was shocked, though I shouldn’t have been, at the level of aggression they displayed when we were not able to meet their demands. But really, it’s not surprising they would demonstrate these behaviours, because violence,  warfare, fear, and a fight for survival, is all they have known.

children dunkirk copyright jamie wiseman

© Jamie Wiseman

The older children (11-16) are heroes. They have a much better understanding of the situation and the difficulties the adults around them are facing, and have undertaken huge responsibilities in caring for their younger siblings, or other children around them. They have maturity far beyond their years and a calm, measured approach to assessing their situation.

I met two brothers. The older, who was 16, told me he was looking after his brother, 14. They wanted to talk to me to improve their English as they were desperate to get to the UK. He asked if he would be able to go to school there. I said I thought he would and would be in around year 11. He then intimated, through motions and broken English, that he would have to start at the beginning, because he could not read or write. I asked, did you go to school even when you were very small? And he said he had started, but then the Taliban came. Motions shooting. Then, schools close. Many of his friends killed. He said he had travelled with his brother for 11 months to get as far as France. They had come with their cousin but had lost him in Serbia. He was going to try to come to the UK soon, maybe by boat, or by lorry. I begged him not to try to come by boat. Tried to motion he might drown.

These are the people trying to reach the UK. They are people who deserve love, and compassion. The media are constantly telling us that people want to come here to change our culture, to bring violence, and take benefits from our hard-earned taxes. Everyone I met wanted to learn English. They wanted to work again, as they had at home, and regain their sense of dignity by providing for themselves. They wanted education, and to contribute to the country they had idealised in their minds as a safe haven. They just wanted a life of safety and dignity, which is the right of us all.

Because people only run the length of the earth, carrying their crying children in their arms, if the alternative is more violent and terrifying than we can possibly imagine. They only leave the homes they love, and the only life they have known, to run with a few possessions on their back into squalid refugee camps for shelter if the alternative is to be killed. See your friends killed. To see your children murdered right in front of you. Wouldn’t any of us do the same in those circumstances?

Love and peace,

Helen