Personal security for female travellers - an insight by RPS Partnership's Head of Training
15 October 2019 - RPS Partnership
"I have been delivering HEAT courses for over a decade, during which time I have listened to numerous experiences from my course participants; of all gender and race." says Cath Mossom - RPS Partnership's Head of Training
I have listened to what they have had to deal with whilst working in remote, challenging environments and often whilst working alone. I have also worked within these austere environments for a long time, often alone or as the only female within the group so I am more than familiar with having to look after my own personal safety, the safety of the client and /or dealing with unwanted attention, whether personally aimed at me, or being caught up within an angry mob.
A question I get asked an awful lot, is how we defend ourselves; especially from a female point of view. I have tried to give you some ideas and hopefully these will help you when you have to travel on your own to perhaps keep them in mind. My thoughts below outline the minimum points that everyone should be considering before travelling and working particularly in the field, but it can also be used within every day normal routine of life. I would strongly recommend that those of you who work in difficult environments undertake a HEAT course; Hostile Environment Awareness Training, where the practical elements of what I am going to write about can prove invaluable. Ensure you ask the training provider whether they have female trainers on the course. RPS Partnership has 7 female trainers, who deliver HEAT training, Training of Trainers and Remote First Aid as well as Trauma First Aid Training.
" It goes without saying that the planning element of any trip is one of the most important aspects of helping you to keep safe and yet it is also one of the things that often gets skipped over especially when we are busy."says Cath.
she continues...."We have all heard of the 5 Ps: Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance and never a truer word spoken. By following a planning template, it enables the individual to think about all aspects of the trip from transportation, accommodation, communication, local knowledge, cultural awareness, climate, medical, and the list goes on. By taking each heading and thinking about the options available, it will give you solutions to problems before they happen, so that you already have a contingency plan, and can act quickly without exposing yourself to the threats that may be prevalent within the region in which you are travelling / working.
For example, transportation. If the driver you have booked and are expecting to greet you at the airport does not show (which happens a lot in my experience working in Africa and Latin America) then what is your plan B? Do you have the driver’s number? Do you have the number for the hotel so they can send you a taxi, which taxi companies can you trust, Uber, the black cabs, yellow taxis?
One of the most frightening experiences that I have had was when went on a last-minute trip to help a friend out to Istanbul. He was a trusted friend whom I had known for years. It was very last minute (he asked me to help him the day before). I didn’t do any planning as I was to meet him at the airport the next day and we had a free day before working when he would tell me the plan, and discuss the trip in detail …”great”, I thought, “what can possibly go wrong?” My flight was delayed, we didn’t meet at the airport, I thought I was staying in Istanbul; but a representative of my friend met me there and gave me a ticket to Gaziantep and told me to hurry as the flight was leaving. It was already 2300. He gave me the name of the hotel and said the taxi would be waiting for me. My friend would meet me there the next day! Now I never did pass my geography O level and I didn’t know where Gaziantep was. The flight was again delayed, and I arrived Gaziantep in the early hours of the morning, my luggage didn’t arrive, and I was the last person the leave the small airport. No local money, no hotel taxi waiting for me! I had no plan or contingency (Plan B), so I had to rely on the airport security guy who called a cab. When I saw a sign to say how close Syria was, my heart was in my mouth. I don’t speak the local language and my driver was constantly on his phone.
I felt very vulnerable and out of control. A position that I had put myself in by failing to ask all the relevant questions before the trip and doing my own research and planning. I put all my trust in my friend, who missed his flight and wasn’t there either. A lesson for me. From that day I always, always, always do my own planning and double check other people’s plans. It could all have had a very different ending to that day. A holiday in Syria was not on my bucket list! So that was my mistake, hopefully if you do your planning correctly you will avoid exposing yourself in dangerous situations.
There are numerous ways to look after your own personal safety, and one rule doesn’t suit all. Personal safety is all about Awareness, Anticipation and Avoidance. Ask yourself what the aim of your day is, and then stick to the plan. Identify what the threat is and do all that you can to minimise your exposure to it.
- Do you need to be in the middle of a crowd to complete your assignment? for the journalists amongst you..
- Do you leave and return by the same routes and timings every day?
- Hotel security; use peep hole in the door, chain the door, use a door chock
- Who can overhear your conversations, what details are you giving them?
- If there are no streetlights avoid walking after dark.
- Use a buddy buddy system, let people know when to expect you back at the hotel.
Carrying an alarm can give people extra confidence, and if a person looks confident in their demeanour. Sprays can be useful too, but do your research, pepper spray is illegal in some countries, even in different states of America. You don’t want to end up the wrong side of the law because you have tried to protect yourself from an attacker using an illegal substance. A small can of hair spray, Ralgex, or insect repellent will work as effectively. It can be tricky to deliver the spray to the eyes, especially in windy weather so be careful.
Is all about de- escalating a situation. If you are approached by a person and they are being aggressive, using techniques learnt from a conflict management course will give you the confidence to use your body language and voice to try and bring the person down to a calmer place, whilst at the same time prepositioning yourself, and identifying escape routes should you need to run.
If deescalating the situation hasn’t been successful, or the attacker took you by surprise or someone grabbed you unexpectedly, then we teach:
These are techniques taught to try and get the attacker to release you, it’s not fighting or self-defence – but simple effective manoeuvres that should take your attacker by surprise, to enable you to free yourself and run. There are some advanced techniques that you could also learn which involves using pressure points of the attacker.
Fighting, should be a last resort, as it can anger the attacker more if you don’t commit and fight with enough force. To be able to fight off an attacker with confidence, you will need to commit to a self-defence class; you need to practice, practice and practice. There are many forms of self-defence, boxing, kick boxing, jujitsu, Kra Magra so chose a course that suits your own level of strength and agility. Self defence needs to be spontaneous to take the attacker by surprise, so it gives you the small window to get away. I always say to people it is better to learn a few techniques well and keep practising them and have them engrained in your brain, then learn too many, over complicate matters and in the heat of the moment, you will probably forget what to do.
Self -help / aftercare
If you do get attacked or you are with somebody who has been attacked, it is important to get medical assistance and after care.This is not always possible in the environments that we work in; especially in the case of sexual assault. The police may not take your case seriously, like in Mexico for instance, or it might be that you need a police case report before obtaining medical help (South Sudan).Do your research before you go, find out where the medical centres are, what are the procedures for reporting assault in that region. Are there any NGO compounds nearby that might be able to assist you?
If you are interested in our HEAT courses (sometimes known as HEFAT or HET), then pls do get in touch [email protected] and we can assist you. Or contact us for our Female Traveller courses.
Written by Cath Mossom, Head of Training RPS Partnership
Photos: RPS Partnership's female trainers tavelling in Nepal and Vietnam