Foreign Study, Women, and Sexual Assault

In the 2009-2010 academic year, more than 270,000 American students studied overseas and the number is expected to rise as foreign education becomes more popular.   In 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched the "100,000 strong initiative" to boost the number of American students studying in China while numerous colleges and universities across the world offer foreign exchange programs to attract international students.  

Despite the appeal of studying abroad, there has been little attention paid to the actual dangers involved, especially for women students.    While both male and female students face many of the same risks that tourists do overall, the added risk of sexual assault must also be considered.    The murder of Peace Corps volunteer Kate Puzey in 2009 highlighted the danger that female volunteers often face.   More than 1,000 female Peace Corps volunteers have reported being sexually assault between 2001 and 2009 and are likely just the tip of the iceberg given the thousands of other women on their own overseas.

Women studying abroad or doing remote volunteer work are at increased risk for a number of reasons including the "second-class citizen" status of women in many countries, unfamiliarity with the culture, language differences, reduced security, and lack of familiarity with alcohol.   

Even on American campuses,  the risk of sexual assault is high for female undergraduates experiencing the college culture for the first time.  This is particularly true for women in their first and second college years who participate in fraternity and sorority activities.   While making police complaints can be arduous enough for women in their own countries, it can be positively nightmarish for women dealing with police in other countries and entirely different cultures who may treat the offence as minor or being the fault of the victim.    In some cases, sexual assault victims in other countries have even been arrested for "having sex outside of marriage."

To read more, check out my new Psychology Today blog post.


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