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The Female Traveller

Why would there need to be a special section for female travellers? Well, they need to be concerned about everything that males do when they travel (except a prostate), and then an awful lot more! Lets take a quick look at some of these issues.

For starters, certain issues are the domain of women, such as menstrual periods, vaginal infections, feminine hygiene products, and most of the responsibility for birth control. Travel may play havoc with what was formerly a menstrual cycle that ran like clockwork. The stresses of travel may in fact make your period disappear altogether. This is acceptable to many women, as long as you can be sure that you are not pregnant. Using the birth control pill will usually solve the need for a regular cycle.

Speaking of the pill, remember that certain medications, such as the antimalarial, doxycycline, can lessen the efficacy of the pill, and barrier methods of contraception should be used as well. If you plan to be on the pill while you are away, be sure to take adequate supplies, as your “brand” may not always be available at your destination. Other forms of birth control such as IUDs, diaphragms, or periodic injections of Depo Provera, are reasonable alternatives to the pill, though they all have their disadvantages. Sexually transmitted diseases are a risk for both sexes, regardless of where in the world you are travelling or living. Condoms, whether they are “male” or “female” condoms, are an absolute must if you do not know the HIV (or any other STD) status of your sexual partner. Carry your own supplies if necessary!

The most commonly used feminine hygiene products are tampons, and like other necessities of life, they may not be readily available at your local convenience store when you are in Africa. Pack what you will need in advance. The Keeper, is a small, bell-shaped, natural gum rubber menstrual cap that is worn internally. It is a comfortable, hygienic, sanitary, safe alternative to tampons and pads. It's very easy to use, and one cap will last for many years say the manufacturers). For more information, go to www.keeper.com. Vaginal yeast infections are more common in tropical countries, and may occur as well after being on any antibiotic. You might consider carrying your own remedies such as Monistat or Canestan cream, or a single-dose tablet, Diflucan.

Not every woman is interested in birth control. Maybe it is part of your plan to become pregnant while you are away. The getting pregnant part may be easy, but assuming you are staying abroad for a long time, the question becomes whether it is safe to have your baby overseas. In most “westernized” countries, the answer will probably be yes. But what about lesser developed countries?

Consider the following before making your decision:

  • What is the quality of the medical facilities?
  • Is good pre- and post-natal care available?
  • Can the local medical staff handle unexpected emergencies or complications should they happen to you or your baby?
  • Is blood screened for HIV, malaria, syphilis and hepatitis B and C?
  • Will you be the first expatriate woman to have a baby there?
  • Is it wise to remain in a highly malarious area (if you are in one to start with) during pregnancy?

Sometimes bad things happen, and sexual assault can be one of them. While using all of your common sense to avoid such a situation, some women may still choose to carry “the morning after pill”. It is also worth being aware of Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP). This refers to a one month course of 2 or 3 antiretroviral medications if you think you may have been exposed to HIV through sex or a needle stick of some sort. To be effective, this must be started within 72 hours of exposure. Discuss this with your travel health professional.

Adapting to a local culture which differs from your own can present its challenges. Not all foreign cultures are as “liberated” as ours. This is not a huge issue if you are just leaving your cruise ship for a day to tour Zanzibar. But if you are planning to live there, it is. Firstly, what should you wear?

This is up to you, but remember that how you dress may have the effect of offending local women, making you more of a target for harassment by local men, or, on a more positive note, making it easier for you to integrate into the local community. The best way to find out about the proper “dress code” is to do some research before you leave, or better still, spend a day or two just observing the local women – how they dress, how they walk, how they interact with each other and with men. As Yogi Berra, the great Yankee catcher, once said, “You can observe a lot by watching.” I don’t think he was talking about Zanzibar!

Whether or not you decide to “go native” and adopt the local dress, perhaps the best guideline is to be conservative. If tradition suggests that your bare shoulders or legs be covered, then cover up. This need not necessarily be in local clothing, but anything light, cool and loose fitting would be fine.

There are a few other issues that may be pertinent to women, particularly if you are travelling and relocating with a husband (your own, preferably) and children. There is a good chance that you will be totally responsible for setting up the household and looking after the kids. Your interface with the new culture will be much different than your spouse’s. Once you get your family and household settled in, which will be no easy task, make sure that you devote time and energy to yourself. Set yourself some goals and work towards them.

If you are not planning to work outside of your home, take advantage and make the most of your time. Get fit, or even fitter if you already are. Try to pursue some of the interests which you never had time for before. Paint, write, play. Sign up for some courses at the local school or university. Immerse yourself in the local language. Take the skills you already possess and share them with the local community in some way. Be a volunteer. There will usually be no shortage of people much less fortunate than yourself who will benefit from your knowledge, sharing and caring.

This might be the time to travel, either with your family, with new friends, or on your own. And finally, if you do have children, this is a great chance to spend that “quality time” with them that we often severely lack back home.

Personal safety is of importance to both sexes, but once again, female travellers have some additional concerns. There are very few instances where local women whistle at and harass foreign men from moving cars. Unfortunately, the opposite is often true (that is, local men harassing foreign women). Assuming you don’t want to be harassed and whistled at, or even worse, remember the following suggestions:

  • Whenever possible, do not walk or travel alone. In many cultures, women walk arm in arm or holding hands. They talk non-stop and laugh incessantly. This is not just a show of affection. They may be having a good time, but they are also avoiding the local men. If you can find a male companion you like and trust, that’s great! Groups of friends are even better.
  • Dress with common sense and respect for the local culture. Act in the same way.
  • Walk with a sense of purpose, even if you are a little bit disoriented. It is easier to ignore somebody while you are moving and not looking at them.
  • Wear a cheap wedding band, and have some stories ready to tell about your “husband and children”, even if you have neither.
  • If there are “women only” buses or cars on the train, take them. They are probably there for a reason.
  • Make sure that your hotel room is locked. Don’t open the door unless you know who is on the other side.
  • Follow your gut reactions. If a situation doesn’t feel comfortable, you should remove yourself from that situation as quickly as possible.
  • Don’t accept a drink unless you have seen it poured.
  • Ensure your living accommodations are secure.

As Amelia Earhart once said, “Adventure is worthwhile in itself”. Good luck on your adventure!

Content (c) Mark Wise
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