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Gender Issues

Ignacio Volunteers JamaicaFor women, I would say to be extra careful and safe especially if you are going to a country where you look very different from the local people. Being a foreigner and a woman, you will get a lot of attention so just take note of your surroundings and be aware. You can definitely have fun but you have to be more careful than you would in the States.
Portia Becker, Mexico City, Mexico

Some women students from U.S. campus environments have a hard time adjusting to attitudes they encounter abroad, in both public and private interactions between men and women. In some countries, it is not uncommon for women to be honked at, stared at, verbally and loudly appraised, and to be aggressively addressed in other ways.  U.S. women are especially likely to get this treatment, simply because they may look different.  The attention can be flattering, scary or just irritating.  However, it may soon become very annoying and frustrating.  Local women, who often get the same sort of treatment, have learned to ignore it.  They know that eye contact between strangers or a smile at someone passing in the street, which is common in the U.S. may result in totally unexpected invitations.

You will have to learn the unwritten rules about what you can and cannot do abroad.  Women can provide support for each other, and former students suggest that you get together several times early in your stay to talk about how to deal with the unwanted attention. U.S. women are seen as “liberated” in many ways, and sometimes the cultural misunderstandings that come out of this image can lead to difficult and unpleasant experiences.

Be careful about the messages you may be unintentionally communicating.  Appropriate behavior for young women varies from country to country, and even within countries. Some countries have well-defined gender roles, others restrict certain activities for women. You may find that behavior and dress that are acceptable in major cities are inappropriate in rural areas. Sometimes, though, just the opposite is true, and behavior is more relaxed outside of metropolitan areas.

Observe how local women your age act and dress and try to do likewise. Watch the local women; see how  they react to certain situations, by avoiding and turning away unwanted gestures. But if your intuition tells you a situation is dangerous, then act as if it is. 
Questions to consider:

  • What is the attitude towards gender in my host country?
  • What are the society’s perceptions and expectations for men, women and transgender individuals in my host country (and in the U.S.)?
  • What are the gender stereotypes of U.S. Americans in my host country?
  • Are there differences in political and social power based on gender?
  • How do my personal values compare with my host country’s attitudes about socially accepted gender roles?

Links for further information:

I experienced some verbal and physical harassment from men because of my gender. They ranged from mild flirtatious comments said by someone in a low voice as I passed him on the street to being groped in dance clubs. My advice to other women going to Latin America is to do what local women seemed to generally do: ignore it. While it may be tempting to react it probably would do no good.
Renee Rivette, Argentina

Updated 12/19/2018