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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 November 2007, 11:27 GMT
Dangers for women travelling solo
By Lucy Rodgers
BBC News

Three people are being questioned by Italian police over 27-year-old UK student Meredith Kercher's death in Perugia, Italy. Every year thousands of young women travel abroad looking for new experiences, but, despite the dangers, most return home safely.

A woman backpacker
Women face unique safety issues when they travel alone

Leaving British shores for a year of adventure in faraway lands has almost become a rite of passage for school-leavers, students and university graduates.

Whether it be teaching English in an African village, swinging from a bungee in New Zealand or backpacking across South America, the gap year industry is booming and is now worth an estimated global 5bn each year.

But, while young people are filled with a sense of adventure and eager for experience, some can also be naive of the dangers which sometimes lie in wait for them when they step off the plane.

Darker side

A number of high-profile cases, including the most recent death of student Meredith Kercher, have shown the overseas experience can occasionally have a darker side.

The body of British bar hostess Lucie Blackman was found on a beach near Tokyo seven years ago; student Katherine Horton was raped and killed by two fishermen on the island of Koh Samui, Thailand, last year; and in March, the body of 22-year-old Lindsay Ann Hawker was found buried in sand in a bath in Japan.

TIPS FOR SOLO WOMEN TRAVELLERS
Trust your instincts
Dress modestly
Be aware of local customs
Pack door locks/wedges and a personal alarm
Copy travel documents and give them to family
Know the way to your hotel
Take licensed taxis and sit in the back
Tell people where you are going
Don't arrive in a place after dark
Think about how your behaviour may be read
Say a firm 'No, thank you' to unwanted male advances
Keep your drink in sight
Take out good travel insurance
Source: Objective Travel Safety/gapyear.com/Lucie Blackman Trust

While these stories made the headlines because they were so rare, are young women really prepared for the dangers of travelling alone?

Matt Searle, of the Lucie Blackman Trust, set up by Lucie's father Tim to advise young people about safety, says they are often not aware enough.

"Years ago a gap year would have been out of the question for most people because it would have been too expensive," he says.

"But now young girls leave university and have enough money to backpack around, say, Nepal - and will go and do it.

"But they often don't realise that when you step off the shores of Britain, everything is different."

Opportunities

Evelyn Hannon, editor of the Toronto-based Journeywoman newsletter and website which is accessed by 60,000 women worldwide, says women find travelling solo rewarding and therapeutic. But they must also prepare well, she says.

"Solo travel for women has become a rite of passage - at key moments in their life, such as at the end of high school or university.

Lucie Blackman
Lucie Blackman's body was found in a cave outside Tokyo in 2001

"But they have to realise how to stay safe. It isn't like walking in their own neighbourhood."

Georgie Aldous, one of the female trainers for Objective Travel Safety, which runs a safety course for gap year travellers, says young women seem to be more "savvy" than their male counterparts.

"But they find it much harder to stick to those instincts, especially if they are younger and with other young men," she says.

The crucial things for young women to remember are to trust their gut feelings and to acknowledge cultural differences, she says.

"They must realise about their appearance and that what goes here doesn't always go elsewhere.

"In Britain it is normal to have equal relationships between girls and boys - but in many countries it is very much still 'Bruces and Sheilas'. If you chat a man up, you will run into problems of him trying to make a move and all that leads to," she warns.

The cultural differences are more pronounced in countries where religion plays a large part in daily life, she says.

"This is purely because none of the parents in these countries would let their daughters go around unaided," she adds.

"This is where a lot of problems stem from - this coupled with the perception of northern European women as having a bad name for themselves."

Observing etiquette

Tom Griffiths, founder of gapyear.com, believes being culturally aware is key.

"As a young woman, whether you agree or disagree with it, there are places where women play a subservient role in society and you have to be aware of the etiquette," he says.

Australian Carita Ridgway
Joji Obara was found guilty of killing Australian Carita Ridgway

"For example, walking in front of the Taj Mahal in a bikini is not going to go down too well."

In the age of the internet, there was "no excuse for not knowing these things", he says.

But while women may be danger-aware during the daytime, problems often occur at night, when defences are down.

The Lucie Blackman Trust says women cannot afford to let their guard relax with people they do not know - especially because of the dangers of date rape drugs.

Lucie is believed to have been drugged by her killer.

The reality is when you are backpacking, you will be with other people, you are rarely alone
Tom Griffiths

"If you are going to a bar, try to do it with a group of people that you trust," Mr Searle says. "With regard to drinks - make sure you see the barman pour it, and don't let go of it.

"Only let someone look after your drink if you trust them with your life - because that is essentially what you are doing."

However, despite the perils, the vast majority of single travellers return from their adventures safely, and Mr Griffiths says solo women are often the toughest of them all.

He says: "They are the most confident travellers and other men and women backpackers tend to look out for them - and the reality is when you are backpacking, you will be with other people, you are rarely alone."



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