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Gender Considerations Abroad

Picture on a street wall of a photo of women holding signs and posters

Mai Nguyen '24, Argentina

Gender roles, social norms, and attitudes toward gender identity and expression vary by country, as do legal protections. Before traveling abroad, research your destination to understand how this may impact your experience.

This article is part of a series on Navigating Your Identities Abroad. In this article, we refer primarily, but not exclusively, to cis-gender-identified women and men; see LGBTQ+ travel guidance for additional information.

Research Your Destination

Traveling abroad provides opportunities to learn about different cultures and practices. Consider how cultural and structural factors might influence how individuals treat you based on the identities you hold.

Common behaviors and forms of gender expression in one country or region, like gestures, body language, and ways of dressing and speaking, may be perceived negatively or met with bias or intolerance in another country or region.

Research as much information as you can about your destination, especially as it relates to social, cultural, and gender norms, local laws and practices, political and historical context, and health and safety conditions.

Here are just some of the questions to explore:

  • Are there differences in political and social power based on gender?
  • What are the expectations around gender roles? What are the gender stereotypes of Americans (or my home nationality)? How do men treat women, and vice versa? How are gender-nonconforming people treated?
  • Are there differences in how I should greet and communicate across genders and age groups?
  • How are relationships (both platonic and romantic) between men and women expressed? How is sex outside of marriage perceived?
  • How do the local laws differ from the US? Are local law enforcement agencies a trusted resource?
  • What’s the infrastructure like in the area where I’ll be (e.g., streetlights, cell phone reception, emergency call boxes, etc.)? And what should I know about incidents of crime (e.g., muggings, petty theft, assault)
  • How are issues of gender-based violence, sexual harassment, and sexual assault understood and treated?
  • How can I manage my health and access healthcare? What kind of healthcare resources will be available?
  • Are there attire-related norms I need to be aware of? How does religion play a role in how individuals are expected to dress?

Leverage Your Network and Resources

In addition to the resources on this page, take advantage of the resources within your social and academic communities on campus, including Harvard’s international centers, affinity groups, and peers who have traveled to your destination. You can also research and seek out in-country support networks.

Consider Your Identities

Once you’ve gathered some basic information about your destination, consider the potential impacts on your experience based on the identities you hold—whether visible or not physically expressed.

Questions to ask yourself include:

  • How do I typically express my identities?
  • Are there aspects of my identity that might be met with bias, prejudice, or intolerance?
  • Is the way I normally dress going to be received positively in most situations?
  • How will I react if I encounter discriminatory behavior?

Be prepared to think about your gender identity in new ways. You may feel differently about what your gender identity means in your host country, and this, combined with your research, can inform your decisions about travel plans, attire, behavior, relationships, and daily routines.

Acknowledge what you can do to adapt to the culture you’ve chosen to immerse yourself in while also not compromising your beliefs and values. You may choose not to behave exactly as locals do, but rather, find a balance between being true to yourself while considering the culture of your host community.

“Take every opportunity to have new experiences but keep safety measures in mind always.”

– Harvard traveler

Take Care of Your Health and Sexual and Reproductive Health

Cultural norms and laws that impact individuals’ access to health care and sexual and reproductive health vary by country (and by state in the US).

Before you leave, consider bringing personal care and health-related items that may be unavailable or difficult to obtain in your destination, including menstruation products, medications, and contraceptives; make sure any medications (prescription and over-the-counter) and contraceptives you bring with you are legal in your destination country.

If you’re pregnant, carry a letter from your doctor confirming you’re able to fly as airlines and countries may deny boarding and entry in a later trimester.

Your Safety Comes First

You deserve to feel safe wherever you travel. 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. Similarly, sexual and gender-related violence affects people of all genders, most often when persons in positions of power exploit others in vulnerable situations, and it’s never your fault.

Adapting to a different culture can be challenging and uncomfortable at times, but know that it should never invade your personal boundaries or make you feel unsafe. Trust your gut and always put your safety first. If you’re in danger of physical or emotional harm, remove yourself from uncomfortable and unsafe situations as quickly as possible.

If you need medical, mental health, or security assistance while on a Harvard-related trip, contact International SOS, our 24/7 global emergency response program, at +1-617-998-0000 or through the Assistance App.

Harvard Global Support Services does not endorse any of the external organizations or services; they are provided only to serve as aides.