Last week, I was very fortunate to attend a one-day UNICEF "Women's Security Awareness Training " workshop conducted by Nancy Osborne - a workshop designed by women for women that explores and addresses security concerns and threats specifically as they relate to women. It was an opportunity for women to share experiences and fears and explore mitigating measures to address their unique concerns.
It was a group of about 25 women, and the workshop started with a question, "What is your greatest fear, as a woman living in New York city?" It could have been any city, and what Nancy revealed, much to my dismay, was that women across the world feel that getting raped (or being sexually assaulted) was their greatest fear. It did not matter what country women are born into, or how old they are, the answer remains the same!
The next question was, "what is it about being a woman that you love the most?" The answers ranged from fun to extremely heartwarming; wearing dresses in summers, being able to wear many hats, having more compassion, integrity and empathy for fellow human beings, being able to give birth, and not being ashamed of asking for directions. Personally, I feel that women have much higher resilience and grit when dealing with everyday life, and that makes me extremely grateful of who I am.
The workshop then moved on to discussing security concerns during travel, and it was interesting to note that women in the UN, not unlike most other organizations, have to put up with accommodations that are not particularly safe, for the sake of saving a few dollars. Sometimes it is a matter of a conflict region, or an emergency, and in this case, there are very few options. However, in certain cases, it is just a matter of one cheaper accommodation over another, and the UN Women’s Security Section is working extremely hard to have a more concrete method in place for ensuring safe and secure traveling options for women.
Some of the tips shared for safe travels (especially traveling alone internationally) included extensive research of a country before you go, including cultural norms, language, appropriate gestures, etc.; planning the "what ifs" (what if there is no pre-booked taxi to take me to my hotel, what if the hotel is full upon arrival, etc.); having some local contacts for emergency; knowing the route from the airport to the hotel; ensuring that your phone works in the new location; and finally trusting your instincts.
The next exercise was the most interesting (and, albeit, a little scary); we were given a handout with sentences, and were asked to fill in the blanks. These were facts provided by convicted rapists, on their modus operandi when selecting a victim. We were all very astonished to learn that these men preferred to select women with long hair (ponytails, buns, braids, etc) rather than short hair, because it was much easier to grab and force a woman into submission. Likewise, women with clothes that could be easily torn (or torn with scissors) as opposed to very tight outfits that take longer to get rid of, were preferred victims.
Women who were distracted (talking on a cellphone, searching through a purse, etc.) were easier targets, while women who carried things that could be used as a weapon (like an umbrella) were not picked. In general, parking lots and specifically, grocery store parking lots, were the first place to look for victims, because most women were often very distracted after buying groceries. Women who put up a fight, of any kind, were not worth going after, and most often it was easier to grab a woman and move her to another location in a car (or car trunk) to have more control over the scenario. The bottom line of this exercise was to be calm in such situations, and find a momentary lapse of self-guard of the assailant to get away from the scene, and as much as possible to not give up without a fight!
We finally moved to practicing some actual self-defense moves that might make a genuine difference. Having participated in a self-defense course in graduate school, it was great to go over all the techniques again. And to end the workshop, we discussed the most important aspect of security training: WEALTH (weapon, escape routes, accomplices, (body) language, terrain and hands). All the tools one should always be aware of when walking/traveling alone; being simply aware of what can be used to save oneself if the situation so arose.
It was a fantastic workshop, and I believe that women of all ages should be taught some form of basic self-defense. Unlike men, many of us don't participate in contact sports, have martial arts training, or have been in a bar fight, which makes us uneasy with the thought of hurting another person. However, what we learned that day was that when it comes to the question of saving our life, a little grit definitely goes a long way.