Meet the women travelling in ‘the most dangerous countries in the world’

‘As we walked through the mall, we encountered the religious police who were shouting at the young girls asking them to ‘cover”


As the Olympics start in Rio de Janeiro, the world’s eyes are firmly on Brazil. Thousands of women will travel to South America for the games but, as young women, how safe are they really?

The International Women’s Travel Center recently named Brazil as one of the top 10 most dangerous countries to travel in as a women. The other countries included Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Egypt, Jamaica, Turkey, India, Kenya, Honduras, and Colombia.

We spoke to women who have experienced first hand what it’s actually like to spend time in these places. From wearing fake wedding rings to  not being allowed to take taxis alone, they have traveled across some of the most perilous countries, often finding themselves in some vulnerable and precarious situations.

Scared of the world? These babes? Never.

Nadia, Saudi Arabia, 19

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Bristol student Nadia lived in Saudi Arabia for seven years when her dad’s work relocated the family. She said: “There is an extremely high rate of street harassment towards women, and that can make one feel at unease and at danger as you do not know how to deal with it.

“In the UK I am treated with more independence and freedom, in the sense that as a woman the expectation of what I am capable of doing is higher. It was compulsory to wear an abaya (a cloak which covers your whole body from wrist and ankles). I also found myself covering my hair in public in order to avoid and detract as much attention as possible. After the time I spent living in Saudi Arabia I also am not as ‘open’ and friendly in public, as small gestures like smiling or greeting people (especially men) could be misinterpreted.

“To other women hoping to travel or live here I’d say be confident, be strong, try to avoid any unwanted attention by covering and dressing ‘modestly’ as such, be safe and aware. I was once walking through a shopping mall with my friend and her younger sister and her friend. The young girls were no more than 10 years old, when we felt the sudden tension break out throughout the shopping mall. As we walked through, we encountered the religious police and their entourage who were shouting at the young girls asking them to ‘cover’ (my friend and I were already fully veiled). It was a really strange experience, because having lived in London most of my life, you don’t usually think that this is really a ‘thing’ – someone of authority telling you how to cover or dress.”

Charlotte, Turkey 

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Cardiff student Charlotte travels regularly in the rural Kaya Valley area of Turkey. She said: “I didn’t feel threatened in any way at all, everyone was really friendly, being somewhere quite rural might’ve meant a different experience from a busier, more urban place, where there’s more people.

“There were no very obvious differences, except perhaps that my dad was always seen as the head of the family – the responsible one. I dressed a bit more modestly than I would when it’s hot in the UK – such as covering my shoulders when walking around. Turkey is quite a religious place so I think a slightly more modest dress sense is better, but it didn’t feel like we were forced to dress like that (unless whilst visiting a monastery then it was required). But I didn’t feel unsafe.

“Turkey is a beautiful country, it should definitely be visited by more people.”

Shivana, Kenya, 19 

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Shivana, who studies PPE at Exeter, moved to Kenya from England in 2002, when she was just five years old. She lived there until 2008, when the family business relocated back home. She said: “I think initially I was too young to feel unsafe as a girl, especially because Kenya is one of the counties where labour is very cheap and you have house maids and drivers, so I never really felt alone and unsafe for that matter. However, the older I became, the more I began to realise that the life and freedom I experience in England- however brief it was- wasn’t similar to that of the true Kenyan locals who could easily take a bus- they were actually minibuses we called matatus- or walk to the shops to pick up some milk.

“I’d heard troubling stats of at least one woman being raped per week, and the various burglaries that would happen so often around town. Going through town you’d see orphans on the street begging for money, tapping on your window as the traffic slowed, and cases where if you had your window opened- which was never the case for us- children could throw acid at you in retaliation. Our car had been broken into near my dad’s office and the lock had been shot.

“Once when we were driving with the windows down in the typically sweltering Kanyan weather a man reached into our car to try to grab my mum’s phone. My dad flipped open a switchblade and he retreated. That was the closest I came to experiencing any actual crime though.

“The last year we were there we saw lots of riots and experienced curfews during the general election. The villa we lived in was built within a certain tribal land, which was where the current president, also running for a second term, was from, and our area of town was very much under threat. When the results of the election showed that president was elected for a second term more riots occurred as they believe he had cheated. For the next week, we hardly had any electricity, we were rationing milk and bread in the villa, my father along with other men were all on night watches, we would hear gunshots in the middle of the night. At one point, two dead security guards were found outside the gates of our villa.

“I think that some of the major differences I saw in my treatment as a women were largely a result of my Indian culture, so even at a young age I would be dealing with domestic issues such as helping in the kitchen, serving tea to guests. However because of how young I was, I was unaware of the inequality gap. Coming back to the UK, my culture still played a large role in my treatment as a female, but I found that I felt more safe being able to take a bus or walk to school. Perhaps the fact that I went to an all girls school opened my eyes to how different I was treated in Kenya just because I was a girl, and how oblivious I had been about it all.

“The idea of community was widely celebrated in Kenya, as different religions and cultures were able to integrate so easily. I myself never learned how to speak Kiswahili- the national language of Kenya- but my grandparents spoke it fluently, and I saw how that shifted the dynamics between the different cultures in terms of celebrating, and not segregating culture. Everyone integrated and spoke to each other regardless of background.”

Bella, India, 21

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Exeter student India went backpacking in India on her gap year. She said:”We were prepared for possible dangers and I even took a self defence course beforehand as a precaution, but actually felt so comfortable and safe the majority of the time. The Indian people were so welcoming to us. We never experienced anyone try to threaten us or cause any issues.”

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“We did notice some differences culturally, like the Indian met we met speaking to our boyfriends, shaking their hands and organising with them, ignoring us as girls. It wasn’t done maliciously, we were just noticed less.

“We changed the way we dressed to respect the culture there. We always wore long dresses or trousers and then often covered our shoulders with scarves.I bought a cheap fake gold wedding band before going and wore it on my ring finger throughout the trip. This was recommended to me because it is known that most Indian men really respect marriage. It worked in our favour a couple of times when someone would ask us where we were going/what we were doing and I would say something like ‘I’m going to see my husband who is doing business in Mumbai’. I also sold my “wedding ring” in exchange for a tuktuk ride when we had run out of money so it was very handy.

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Tara Beynon, Brazil, 20

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UCL student Tara regularly visits Brazil to see friends who live there, and recently spent five weeks in the country. She said: “I personally managed to avoid too many scary encounters while out there, but Brazil (especially Rio) was clearly very dangerous. The crime out there has increased huge amounts over the last five years. 

“The scariest encounter I had was arriving back into Rio alone through the bus station, I had barely stepped outside before I was swept into the chaos of trying to locate a taxi. Strange men were coming up to me and asking me where I wanted to go in very fast Portuguese, fighting amongst each other who would take me to my destination. My intuition was telling me to run and return to the safety of the bus station. But I had been trying my Uber app for like an hour without success, I was getting desperate. Despite the many warnings I’d had about using taxis with no paper trail it seemed there would be no other option.

“Just as I was about to negotiate a deal with this sleazy taxi driver I felt soft hand on my shoulder. A Brazilian girl around the same age as me pulled me over to the side, sensing the panic in my eyes reassured me that she would help me find a safe taxi. Taking my hand she dragged me through the masses of people and to the other side of the station where she searched out a taxi for me that she knew to be safe. She was a true guardian angel. I shudder to think of what would have happened if she had left me to my own devices. Bus stations in Rio are mental.

“I didn’t wear revealing clothes and I kept my phone in my bra at all times, keeping it hidden in busy areas – a friend from Rio has had to replaced hers four times in two years from carrying it in her hand. Having a paper trail gives you much more security so uber is crucial. Also know which areas are dangerous and which are safe, just as you would in any new city. If you go out exploring take a friend. It helped that I was staying with Brazilian friends who knew the areas very well and would show me places, so I could get by knowing very little Portuguese. I only went exploring alone once.”

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Tara added: “My friends house, where I was staying, had maximum security – CCTV Footage of the whole area and barbed wire surrounding the perimeter at all times because apparently three years ago their house had been attacked by bandits coming over the mountain from the local favella. I was completely forbidden from walking outside of the barbed wire gate that surrounded the house.”

Beth, Mexico

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 A Languages student at Exeter, Beth has just returned from three weeks travelling in Mexico. She said: I wouldn’t say I felt threatened at any point, and many coastal areas (particularly Cancun/ Puerto Vallarta) seem well accustomed to foreign tourists and western women. In Mexico City, however, we did seem to attract a lot of attention, despite having made an effort to dress conservatively, and men would stop and stare in the street. It was never in a threatening manner, but I found it very strange that even in a capital city the locals paid so much attention to two tourists.
“The main difference was the fact that men were so openly staring on the streets. On a couple of occasions people came out of shops or side streets to watch us walk up the road. Again, I don’t think this was intended as threatening but in the UK this would not happen. After hearing so many horror stories of people being pickpocketed in Mexico City, I was pleasantly surprised by how safe I felt the entire time we were in Mexico. Mexico City was extremely clean and there was a strong police presence, particularly once it started to get dark. Perhaps it was very dangerous for tourists ten or so years ago, but I would say I felt as safe walking around Mexico City as I do in London.”