Women and Gender Abroad

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Whether you are well traveled or this is your first time going abroad, it’s important to consider that your host country’s attitude towards gender roles and norms may be different than you are used to in the United States, and laws and attitudes towards men and women can vary from country to country. Regardless of their gender identity, all students may experience significant shifts in the ways in which gender may impact their (perceived) identities abroad - everyone’s experience is unique. In addition, students of all genders may experience stereotypes and differences in gender norms abroad. Below you will find a number of questions, tips, and resources that may guide your experience as a female traveler and help you prepare for the cultural differences regarding gender roles in your host country.

The most common situations students may experience abroad include the following:

  • Some cultures may be more restrictive or more progressive than you are used to.
  • Depending on where you travel, you may be treated differently or be expected to treat others differently based on cultural norms around gender roles and gender rights.
  • Sexual harassment and assault may be defined differently or not at all in your host country. Remember, Notre Dame provides support to students who experience sexual harassment or assault.
  • What might be common behavior for women or men in the United States may be misunderstood or misinterpreted in your host country.
  • You may experience stereotypes regarding gender identities. For instance, some countries may have a preconception that American women are “easy” or “loose.”

In collaboration with the Gender Relations Center (GRC), Study Abroad has compiled information regarding the selection of programs, questions to ask yourself, and additional resources. We encourage you to contact a Study Abroad program director if you would like to talk about traveling to a foreign country or if you have any program-specific questions. To discuss your personal questions or concerns, reach out to NDI Study Abroad subject-matter advisors, Katie Kovar and Lisa Shroyer.

Selecting a Program

There are a variety of factors to consider as you discern which study abroad location is best for you. In addition to academic and co-curricular fit, we encourage you to research your host country to get a sense of belief systems and values. This will help you determine if their beliefs differ greatly from your own or are more closely aligned than you anticipated. Regardless of gender identity, there are social, political, and personal considerations you should make while planning your future study abroad endeavor as your experience abroad will be influenced by your gender. Study Abroad program directors are here to help you discuss your study abroad options.

Questions to Ask Yourself

As you consider and prepare for an international experience, use the following questions to guide you in self-reflection. This is not an exhaustive list and you may relate to multiple identities. When reflecting on your gender and its impact on your study experience, we encourage you to determine what is important and necessary for you as you study abroad and envision how you would navigate new situations.

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  • What expectations do I have of this experience?
  • Are gender roles clearly defined in my host country? If so, what are the cultural and local attitudes toward women/men in my host country?
  • How are women/men expected to act in my host country?
  • What are the laws in my host country that may affect aspects of gender?
  • How are women/men perceived in my host country? Do people in my host country have stereotypes of women/men in general and American women/men in particular?
  • Are there safety considerations while traveling in my host country? Is it safe for me to go out alone or after dark? Are there specific areas or places I should avoid?
  • Are there attire-related norms I need to be aware of? How does religion play a role in how women are expected to dress?
  • How do men treat women in my host country, and vice versa? How do race and ethnicity impact this treatment? How will different, intersecting aspects of my identity inform my study abroad experience in addition to gender roles and norms?
  • What are the cultural norms regarding friendship and dating? Can smiling or making direct eye contact with strangers imply something more than just a friendly gesture? How are personal boundaries expressed in my host culture?
  • How might my experience as a woman/man abroad differ from my experience in the United States? Are there stereotypes about American women/men in my host culture?
  • How do my personal values compare with the values held by my host community regarding gender identity and gender roles?
  • If I experience catcalling or similar behavior while abroad, how would I react? How would I react if I find something to be offensive and how does this reaction differ from that at home?
  • Does my program have support staff that will understand and help me through any incident I may face? Who should I contact if I experience sexual harassment or assault? (Please see resources listed below).

Additional Resources

Tips for Women Abroad

While many students travel safely and without incidents, some individuals, especially those traveling alone, may face additional risks in certain destinations through no fault of their own. For instance, women travelers may be perceived as an easier target for petty crime and are more likely to be the victim of sexual harassment or assault abroad. Men traveling abroad should also be aware of any differences regarding gender roles and expected behavior in their host country and can be important allies to fellow travelers. While incidents may happen to any student traveling abroad regardless of their own actions or level of preparedness, below are a number of helpful tips that may help prevent incidents:

  • Research gender roles and their history before you depart.
  • Put your safety and that of fellow travelers first and be aware of your surroundings.
  • Dress and act like locals to avoid standing out and drawing unwanted attention. Be aware of cultural differences, including body language, that could be misinterpreted in your host culture.
  • Familiarize yourself with cultural norms and attitudes toward gender in your host country:
    • Talk with others who have studied abroad to find out more about their experiences with gender norms in your host country.
    • Review specific precautions advised for travelers at your destination(s) on the relevant U.S. Department of State country information pages.
  • Decline politely but firmly invitations which make you feel uncomfortable, even if you feel pressured to accept. If English is not widely spoken, learn key phrases to stop unwanted advances.
  • Do not be afraid to say you have a significant other (even if you don't) to avoid further unwanted attention.
  • Ignore suggestive comments, cat-calling, etc.
  • Research safe transportation options in your host country. Travel in groups when possible.
  • Observe and respect local clothing customs. Consider packing a hat and scarf in case you need to layer up.
  • Save local emergency contact information in your phone, including resources for victims of any kind of harassment, assault, or abuse.
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Tips for Solo-Travelers 

  • In some countries, solo travelers, especially women, are a source of curiosity and may draw unwanted attention; you may be stared at if traveling alone. As a precaution, avoid eye contact with strangers. Consider packing a pair of sunglasses to wear when out in public.
  • Make it seem like you are traveling in a group:
    • Make a call to let a friend know you will be arriving shortly. Even a pretend call can be useful in certain situations.
    • Ask for a table for two in restaurants. Place a coat over the second chair, and ask the waiter not to clear the second place setting to give the impression you are already with or expecting someone.
  • Restrict evening entertainment to popular establishments and safe areas of the city.
  • If you are concerned, go to a safe place and signal for help.

Sexual and Discriminatory Harassment

Unfortunately, sexual harassment and assault can happen to college students abroad, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation, just like it happens here in the U.S. The University encourages students to report all incidents of bias, discrimination, and/or harassment so that the University can take appropriate action to assist the students involved. Below are reporting options. The course of action taken by the University to support the students involved will depend on the facts and circumstances of each report. Please know that submitting a report while abroad does not necessarily mean you will be required to return to the U.S. unless medically necessary.

Reporting an Incident

To report an emergency

If you have a complaint involving sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, or sexual assault, or if you have questions about Notre Dame’s policies or procedures in these areas, please contact:

What is the difference between a confidential and non-confidential resource?

Sharing information with a non-confidential resource will result in an investigation. The nature and extent of an investigation will depend on the extent to which the University has enough information to reasonably determine key facts (e.g., time, date, location, and names of parties involved in an alleged incident). For study abroad students, this means that NDI Travel and Safety will be notified to ensure you have appropriate care and support resources.

Sharing information with a confidential resource means these professionals will honor confidentiality unless there is an imminent danger to the individual or others. As a study abroad student, it is important to understand the local laws and customs regarding the reporting of sexual harassment and assault as they vary country to country.