When it comes to teaching girls about the world, it’s sometimes hard to avoid using cautionary tales. As much as I hate to admit it, the world can be a downright inhospitable place for a woman.
As a parent to a daughter, I occasionally feel fearful for what my daughter may experience growing up. In the era of “Me Too,” these fears are certainly not unfounded. I wonder if we she will face sexual harassment as a teen or adult. I worry that someone may assault her one day. Every day, I read stories of bad things happening to women, and I fear that one day that story will be about my daughter.
This post was updated on December 13, 2019.
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A dangerous place for a woman
On a trip to India once, we rode in a taxi with a sticker on it that read, “This Taxi Respects Women.” When I first saw it, I thought to myself, “oh, how cute, they like women.” But then it dawned on me that the sticker is there because it’s probably not safe for a woman in India to ride in a taxi alone.
My female Indian coworkers later confirmed this to me, explaining that sexual assault against women in taxis and public transportation is all too common in major Indian cities like Delhi. The most well-known case was in 2012 when a 23 year old woman was gang raped by several men on a public bus in Delhi. The men were later convicted, but that case really sparked dialogue in India about the male-centric culture that allows these kinds of things to happen.
Those stickers are part of an initiative by the Manas Foundation to teach taxi drivers how to treat their female passengers and how to prevent sexual assault of their female passengers.
What are we teaching girls about the world?
Sadly, this type of thing is not just limited to India, but can happen anywhere in the world. For a place that can be at times unwelcoming to women, how can we, as parents, start teaching girls to love and appreciate the world? How can we be the female role models for our daughters?
I am not one to shy away from showing my kids the uncomfortable sides of travel. We have seen fancy five star hotels, and the slums that exist right next to them. Our kids have seen beggars on the street, and we’ve talked about how some people don’t have enough money to have their own house or to even buy food to eat.
But the topic of sexual assault is something that we’ve never really discussed. How do we broach that topic when it comes to teaching girls? To a five year old girl, the world is a fun and exciting place. I hesitate to tarnish that innocent wonder with the idea that it can be dangerous, especially for a woman.
Traveling as a woman
My own experiences of traveling as a woman have been fairly positive. I believe that in general, people are trustworthy and honest. There have only been a few times where I can honestly say I felt uncomfortable and unsafe.
The one incident I remember the most was in Indonesia. I was visiting a theme park with my mom and sisters. I was thirteen, and waiting in line for a ride. Behind me was a group of teenage boys, maybe eighteen or nineteen, who started touching my sister and me. They were subtle touches, on my elbows, hands, and waist. Not enough to classify as sexual assault. But it was enough to make me feel uncomfortable and to know that it wasn’t right. My mom was oblivious to it all. And I was too young and embarrassed to tell her what was going on.
I think about this moment when I think about my daughter. How would I want her to react in a situation like this? For a long time I thought to myself, “oh, it’s because I was dressed in shorts and a tank top in a conservative country. I should have been dressed more modestly. Then they wouldn’t have wanted to touch me at all.” But now that I think about it, that’s exactly the blame-the-victim mentality that perpetuates this type of behavior. When I think more closely about teaching girls to be fearless world travelers, I realize that it starts with teaching them that situations like these are not their fault.
Teaching girls not to fear the world
As parents, our main responsibility is to prepare our kids for the world. If we’re teaching girls to venture out into the world, we need to give them the right tools and knowledge to explore it on their own.
I may be fearful of the future, but I’m also hopeful that my daughter will be able to handle any situation she comes upon with confidence and bravery. Here are a few ways you can empower your daughters to become fearless world travelers.
Don’t shy away from the ugliness
All too often, we think that kids are too young to handle anything unpleasant. We only want to give them happiness and enjoyment. So we opt to take our kids to places like Disney theme parks or all-inclusive resorts and cruises. Or we only choose easy destinations like Europe or Hawaii.
While I do enjoy being pampered once in awhile, I think we do our kids a great disservice by only showing them the pretty parts of the world. On your next travels, let your kids see some of the not so pretty things. This could be passing through a poorer part of a city, or perhaps visiting a war memorial.
Let your kids ask questions. Allow yourself an opportunity to talk candidly about why poverty exists, why war happens, or why sometimes the world is not always a nice place. It may be too early to talk about sexual assault, especially if your kids are young like mine. However, exposing your kids to places that may be slightly uncomfortable for them helps prepare them for the realities of the world.
Provide a listening ear
When I was thirteen, I was too afraid to tell my mom what happened because I thought she would simply dismiss it or blame me for it all. Now that I’m a parent, I realize that fostering an open relationship with your child starts at an early age.
On your travels, and even at home, try and provide a listening ear to your kids. If something happens to them, show them compassion and help them feel comfortable in sharing their concerns and worries with you, no matter how trivial and mundane it may seem to you. Later on, when your daughter is older and traveling on her own, she’ll feel more comfortable confiding in you when something bad does happen to her.
Share stories of fearless women
History is full stories of famous adventurers. Unfortunately, most of them are men: Marco Polo, Lewis and Clark, Jacques Cousteau, Anthony Bourdain. Not so much is written about female adventurers.
One of my favorite female explorers, Freya Stark, traveled through the Middle East in an age when women rarely traveled outside the home. Nellie Bly was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. Recently, Jessica Nabongo was the first black woman to visit every country in the world.
Reading stories of fearless women helps girls feel empowered to explore themselves. They realize that there are no limits to their exploration and curiosity.
Be an example for teaching girls to be fearless
The best thing we can do when we’re teaching girls, especially our daughters, is to lead by example. If we want our daughters to be fearless, we need to be fearless ourselves.
True, there are certain cautionary steps we need to teach our kids when we travel. This includes looking both ways when crossing the street, never talking to strangers, or staying with a grown-up in new situations. But don’t let these precautions hinder you from going out and exploring.
My daughter sees me traveling on my own. She’s seen pictures of the places I’ve visited. We’ve talked at great length about places in the world that we want to see together. All of this helps to instill a spirit of travel and exploration in her that I hope to continue nurturing as she grows older. I know that if I want my daughter to be an explorer, I myself need to be an explorer too.
Being honest and open to hard conversations
The world can be a scary place, especially for a woman. And for parents raising young girls, it can be difficult to know what the best path is to fully prepare them for the realities of the world. In the end, I don’t think there is a straightforward answer. But I do know that being honest and open to those hard conversations is more often than not a step in the right direction.
Are you teaching girls to be world travelers? What are your thoughts and insights?
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