65% of American students who study abroad are women. The study abroad experience can be a life-changing and eye-opening journey for many students where you can explore different food, music, history, and customs. However, being part of a new culture can also lead you to experience your gender identity in a way that you are not accustomed to in the United States. There are many problems with gender inequality in the U.S., but these are problems that you have grown up with and know how to maneuver. Though many of the gender-related issues you might face abroad will be similar in tone to what you might face at home, you will be in a new environment surrounded by people you don’t know and customs you are unfamiliar with. It is important to do some research about what you might expect in your host country before you arrive there so as to fully prepare yourself for what you might experience. Some questions to consider before you travel abroad:
- ?What is the overall attitude toward gender in my host country?
- What gender stereotypes about people from the U.S. do people from my host country hold?
- How do men treat women in my host country? How do women treat men in my host country?
- What are the attitudes toward non-binary or transgender individuals in my host country?
- Are there differences in political and social power based on gender in my host country?
- What is the usual style of dress for women in my host country? Will my Western style of clothing be acceptable in my host country?
Common Gender-Related Issues that Come Up Abroad
Stopstreeharassment.org defines street harassment as “catcalls, sexually explicit comments, sexist remarks, homophobic slurs, groping, leering, stalking, flashing, and assault. Most women and some men will face gender-based street harassment by strangers in their life. Street harassment limits people’s mobility and access to public spaces. It is a form of gender violence and it’s a human rights violation.”
Street harassment is something that most women in the U.S. have experienced before. Some women who travel abroad experience less street harassment than they do in the U.S., and some women who travel abroad experience more street harassment than they are used to. In many cultures there is a specific expectation of Western, and particularly American, women, which can lead to unwelcome sexual advances. In some cultures, street harassment is seen as the norm, and people might view things like whistling, staring, or making comments perfectly harmless. Street harassment is almost always an uncomfortable experience whenever it happens, but it is good to mentally prepare yourself for it before your arrival, so if you are in a place where it happens regularly you are not caught off guard.
The availability of oral contraception varies throughout the world. If you are on the pill, it is often a good idea to get enough to last you through your entire study abroad stay. You may need to get a waiver from your insurance company in order to do this, so be sure to plan ahead! You might also consider having an IUD inserted, which can last several years and would eliminate the need for pills. Be sure to check in with your doctor about whichever birth control method you choose. Most countries sell condoms but in some cases they can be hard to come by due to social stigma. If this is the type of host country you will be traveling to, consider packing your preferred variety of condoms—just make sure they are kept at room temperature and away from any sharp objects to maintain their effectiveness.
Check to see what kind of period products are available in the country you are going to. Tampons are not as frequently used in some places in the world as they are in the U.S. In some places they cannot be found at all, and in others they will be stocked only in “foreigners” sections of stores, meaning they will likely be very expensive. Some countries sell tampons without applicators so consider familiarizing yourself with that variety of tampon if you are going to be traveling to a country where this is relevant. Some women highly recommend using a menstrual cup as it is reusable and you could purchase it before you leave the U.S. If you go this route, make sure you know how to use it before you leave. Also consider whether you want to bring your own supplies with you if you think it will be difficult to obtain your preferred menstrual products while abroad.
On Being an ALLY for Women Studying Abroad
Many of the ways to be an ally to women abroad are similar to the ways one can be an ally to women at home. Refraining from contributing to street harassment and other forms of harassment that perpetuate rape culture is a big one. Being quiet and listening when women voice their experiences to you is another. Educating yourself on the issues by doing your own research and not forcing individual women to do all the explaining for you is also a good idea. Check out the following resources for ways that you can actively support women while abroad:*
- 10 ways men can be feminist allies
- Discussion on how to be a male feminist ally
- What men can do in the fight against street harassment
Understand the Following Terms:
Feminist: A feminist is someone who believes that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. Feminism is the theory of political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. It does NOT mean someone who hates men or believes that women are superior to men.
Toxic Masculinity: Society’s expectations of how a traditional male should behave that can have very negative effects on all members of a society.
- Negative Effects of Toxic Masculinity: the suppression of emotion, the encouragement of violence, the discouragement of seeking help, the perpetuation of rape culture, homophobia, misogyny.
Misogyny: Prejudice against women
White Feminism: feminism that is centered around the ideals and struggles of white women, and largely ignores women of color and other intersections of identity.
Intersectional Feminism: A theory that supports equality for all women and understands that not every feminist is white, middle class, cis-gendered, and able bodied. It highlights the fact that not all women experience sexism in the same way due to their intersecting identities.
Diversity Abroad - Women Abroad
NorthWestern University - Gender Abroad
*Guilford College is not responsible for the content of these links and has not screened them for validity. Readers should be advised that there could be strong content or sensitive material within them. They have been included here because they may be a valuable resource for personal knowledge. Reader discretion is advised.