Managing Street Harassment Abroad
Elizabeth Esparza, a senior program manager on our International Safety & Security team, shares advice and resources for dealing with street harassment abroad.
Many behaviors are culturally contextual. For example, people in some cultures may avoid eye contact while other cultures may consider it rude if you don't maintain eye contact. The concept of personal space may be nonexistant, or the commonly accepted distance may vary greatly. Although street harassment is a common challenge everywhere, it's more ingrained in some cultures than others. Whether it's staring, whistling, or making comments about your body, it’s always inappropriate, and never your fault. When faced on a regular basis, street harassment can wear you down and interfere with your ability to enjoy and make the most of your international experience.
What to Do in the Moment
Although every situation is different, the following tips may help you deal with the street harassment when it occurs.
Try to stay calm. Stress and fear can be paralyzing. While being relaxed in these situations is difficult, it enables you to keep a clear head. Also, control your anger and other emotions. Is it infuriating to be constantly objectified and sexualized? Absolutely; but responding in anger may escalate an already difficult situation.
If possible, remove yourself from the situation. Walk away. If you’re on a bus or taxi, ask the driver to stop and let you off as soon as it is safe to do so. Get to a safe location and text or call someone you trust.
Practice situational awareness so you know what’s going on around you. Identify safe places you could seek help, if needed. Are there others around that could help, or at a minimum distract the harasser?
If You Fear for Your Safety
Street harassment may cross from being an annoyance to an act that can lead you to question your safety and continuously fear physical and sexual harm. If you fear harm, review the following advice.
If you believe you're being followed, don't go home or to any location that you frequent. Instead, head to a hospital, pharmacy, police station, or any other location that is staffed day and night and where you’re likely to receive help. As in the U.S., not all resources are accessible for all people.
If you encounter repeat offenders, consider varying your travel routes. Use alternate forms of transportation, and don’t keep to a predictable schedule.
If you’re in imminent danger, call the local police, if it’s safe to do so. If it isn’t safe to do so or you can't access the resources you need, then can contact International SOS. You’ll be connected quickly to a security professional who can provide advice or assistance.
How to Mitigate Street Harassment
Although there's often little you can do to prevent street harassment, the following measures may help you mitigate and prepare for it.
Research and practice local cultural norms, including gender, identity, and dress norms. Many countries follow strict gender rules for how men and women interact. Dressing like a local may decrease unwanted attention. It's especially important to carefully consider how you dress in conservative countries and cultural attitudes toward LGBTQ persons.
Conduct visualization exercises by mentally walking through “What if?” scenarios to practice how you would respond. This preparation improves reaction time and mitigates shock and stress during a real incident.
If necessary, pretend to be married, engaged, or in a relationship. In many countries, women perceived to be wives and mothers are less likely to be harassed. You could wear a simple band on your wedding finger, or, if asked, share stories of your significant other back home. This is a hard one for me to practice because I truly value authentic travel experiences; however, in some countries, it’s exhausting to constantly explain your single status.
Outlets to Manage Stress
Street harassment causes emotional, mental, and physical stress. You may feel scared, embarrassed, sad, disappointed, and so many other emotions that are normal, yet draining. Try any of the following outlets to manage the stress:
- Exercise, read, or sleep.
- Do whatever brings you joy and happiness; self-care is extremely important, especially when traveling.
- Talk about your experiences with someone you trust.
- Seek medical help if you’re experiencing physical health issues.
- If you'd like to report the harassment to local authorities, contact International SOS to discuss safe options. If you'd like to report it to Harvard, contact your Title IX coordinator.
International SOS is the University’s 24/7 global emergency response program. While abroad, you can access medical, mental health, and security support by calling +1-617-998-0000 or starting a chat or phone call from within the Assistance App. You can also contact International SOS to file a non-urgent incident report at any point, even after you've returned. Doing so enables International SOS and our security team to track incident patterns, educate future Harvard travelers, and ensure you've received the proper support.
Harvard's Office of Sexual Assault Prevention & Response (OSAPR) provides a confidential space open to the entire Harvard community where you can process and understand your experiences and feel empowered to make the choice best suited to your needs. Contact OSAPR during normal business hours at +1-617-496-5636 or through its 24/7 hotline +1-617-495-9100.
The Harvard Title IX Office provides a comprehensive guide for the many resources available to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based harassment.