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Sexual Harassment and Assault of Travelers Goes Beyond White Women in Developing Nations

It’s hard to find a woman who hasn’t felt the graze of a male hand across her backside on a train or had racing thoughts as she’s confronted with a threatening man.

Travel, despite being an industry touted as endless fun and adventure, is no exception to the worldwide epidemic of sexual harassment and assault that movements like #MeToo aim to eradicate. A 2012 study argued that female undergraduate students were at higher risk for rape and harassment while studying abroad. Lauren Wolfe’s 2014 New York Times article gave startling statistics about the possibility of assault while traveling, and even highlighted the patriarchal views of certain destinations that allow it to continue.

Many bloggers and writers have shared stories of harassment and assault abroad. A highly debated 2013 CNN blog of a University of Chicago student’s experience with sexual assault and harassment in India continues to spark discussions about the way she presented the complex issue.

Harassment of women of color traveling in developed countries

But the discussions surrounding women travelers at risk are often limited to certain countries and regions and include sweeping generalizations about people and cultures. In an astute reflection, Amanda Machado argues there’s no middle ground in understanding women’s experiences of being assaulted abroad.

“I rarely read or hear about how issues of culture, race, and privilege influence both the validation of sexual assault, and the way we tell its story,” Machado writes. “I rarely read or hear about how we can manipulate ‘culture’ to delegitimize a woman’s experience, or to value one woman’s experience over others.”

White and western women travelers’ experiences are often taken more serious than local women’s – such as when the assault of six Spanish tourists who were raped in Acapulco in 2013, as Wolfe details, was “resolved” just days later, but an estimated 98 percent of crimes in the area never see justice – and while all women face barriers to denouncing harassment and assault, it’s much more difficult and overlooked experience for some.

As Amnesty International USA’s Women’s Human Rights Program director Cristina Finch points out in Wolfe’s article, “On average, attacks against white women worldwide receive more coverage than attacks against women of color.”

These stories of attacks against white women often take place in India, the Middle East, and South America. But not as many stories tend to focus on, for example, the harassment that black and Asian women travelers face, much of which stems from their stereotypes and fetishization.

Slowly, those stories are becoming more visible but they are not at the forefront of discussions, and especially not when they happen outside the typical narrative – in other words, when harassment happens to a woman of color or a non-Western woman in a developed country. It’s as if it’s easier to categorize one region or country as all dangerous or all safe, rather than become more introspective about our own communities and power structures.

Abuse and harassment of Working Holiday visa holders in Australia

Such is the case with the abuse of visa holders in Australia on the Working Holiday Maker (WHM) Programme, in which I participated in 2016. The visa program (visa subclasses 417 and 462) grants one year work permits to those aged 18-30 from select countries such as Japan, Argentina, the UK and Italy, with the ability for subclass 417 to extend for another year after successfully completing 88 days of agricultural work.

The agricultural industry and visa programme have received much attention for its simultaneous dependency on this workforce and rampant systematic underpayment of them. This discussion almost exclusively focuses on wages, hours and work conditions, most often as it relates to the 88 days of agricultural work. While still important, a less covered aspect of this exploitation is the traumatic vulnerabilities of women visa holders and the circumstances and issues of race and privilege with which these women visa holders experience sexual harassment, assault and threats.

I met one woman named Anna, who preferred a pseudonym, who I later interviewed after she had returned to Japan, her home country. She – like many other women, mostly non-native English speakers I met while in Australia – realized how easy it was to be in vulnerable situation.

It’s important to note that my understanding of sexual harassment of visa holders in Australia is heavily anecdotal. The lack of data shows that harassment and assault either doesn’t happen on a grand scale or women simply aren’t reporting it or identifying it as such. The Australian Government’s Fair Work Ombudsman, which supports workers and upholds compliance of workplace rights, often recovers damages to visa holders, but seldom for sexual harassment. It’s also crucial to remember that beyond typical barriers to reporting harassment and assault, women WHM visa holders could also be hesitant to report issues when they accept under-the-table wages, a common but discouraged practice among visa holders.

In 2016, Anna joined the other 214, 583 temporary visa holders (during the 2016-2017 fiscal year, the number of granted visas decreased to 211,011, according to the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection). Two months into her stay in Melbourne, she decided to seek employment. She found a café on Flinders Street in Melbourne’s Central Business District (CBD) that agreed to give her an unpaid trial, a standard test in hospitality.

Usually these last a couple of hours, or enough for the hiring manager to see if she’d be a good fit. When two days passed with no breaks in which she was only allowed to go to the restroom once or twice, she started to worry.

During the second day, the hiring manager told her to follow him into the stockroom, a small and confined space. Immediately, she had a sinking feeling.

He showed her some of the stock, then instructed her to sit down. He told her that he knew that Japanese and Korean girls can’t speak English very well, but they all want jobs. Then, he offered her a proposal. Anna told me that he said, “On[c]e or twice a week if you can be my girlfriend I can give you lots of shifts and pay and accommodation.”

Suddenly worried this was headed somewhere terrible, she made up an excuse in the moment that she had a boyfriend. He brushed this off: “Your Japanese boyfriend is not in Australia. You can learn to speak English with me and lots of benefit. This is your choice, yes or no.”

She refused his offer again, and was alarmed, yet still came in the next day hoping that her two previous full days of hard work would at least give her a job at the café. So she did another seven hours of work with no pay, breaks or lunch and at the end of the day the same hiring manager offered her a job for $10.00 an hour.

Currently in Australia, the national minimum wage is $18.29 per hour, according to the Fair Work Ombudsmen, and in 2016 it was more than $17 – far more than the $10 an hour he was offering. She asked why she would only earn $10 an hour. “It is a secret. This is … because you refuse my propose[al]. She accepted me that why…” he told her, and gave her the name of another Japanese girl as if to show her that some foreigners knew what they had to do to earn a living.

The circumstances of the visa allow these conditions to be possible. Women who travel to Australia or other developed countries with low levels of English, general confusion over workplaces laws and their rights, and the overwhelming acceptance that as non-native English speakers they deserve less are easy targets for the abusive superiors they are at the hands of. These were common conversations in “backpacker” circles and under-the-table jobs I also participated in for lack of better opportunities.

Beyond the obvious need to ensure a safe and productive working environment for all (Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsmen is very aware of the problem and trying to combat this), these examples highlight the extensive range of sexual harassment and abuse that women travelers of all nationalities face abroad, including in developed nations that are considered more progressive.

Let’s be clear: no harassment is ever warranted and no harassment is less terrible than another. But for some women travelers around the world – especially migrant workers and women traveling to developed nations – sexual harassment is often connected to their ability to survive and contingent upon their race, status, and language skills. And this is receiving far less discussion.

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