Many of us regularly travel overseas, sometimes to places we consider fairly similar to home, sometimes to places we are less familiar with. When I reflect on some of my travels I wonder what I was thinking – I went to Port Moresby, Johannesburg and Manaus, cities generally considered unsafe, without significant preparation or thought of how I would manage my own safety and security. Perhaps even more worrying was that none of my employers raised the need to prepare for travel to locations that are plagued by social injustice, high crime rates and rampant sexual violence, or that have different views of what women can and cannot do than what I was used to.
In more recent years I have been lucky enough to work in organisations that take their duty of care more seriously. Many organisations now have policies in place stipulating that anyone travelling to 'unsafe' locations need to attend at least basic travel safety awareness training. But there is still some way to go. The implementation of those policies often fall to individual line managers, and in reality a staff members opportunity to receive appropriate training often depends on if his or her manager has set aside the budget, or indeed on if they find it important enough for the staff member to take the time to attend a course.
Women face a particular set of challenges when travelling and those challenges are generally not sufficiently addressed in standard travel awareness and safety courses. In many cultures there are different rules to observe for women and the relationship between men and women is more regulated than in Western cultures. Women are of course also more likely to be subjected to sexual violence.
Being travel smart does not mean that every risk is eliminated. But it does mean that you make it your business to be aware of the cultural norms and social and political realities in the places you are travelling to. And it does mean that you understand how you can reduce the risk of becoming a victim of a crime or of sexual violence, and how to make sure that you stay as safe as possible.
It also means that we all have to start sharing our experiences and that we all have a responsibility to raise our specific needs with our managers and colleagues. Standard travel safety awareness courses are run by experienced, trained and well meaning male ex Special Forces personnel. They themselves have not been confronted with daily unwelcome physical advances, let alone had to fight off an aggressive sexual assault by a stranger or even a male colleague. Handbooks offer very limited women focused travel advice because the female experience has simply not sufficiently been recognized as needing specific risk mitigation tips and methods. And should I mention that hygiene and medical needs for female travelers are very different from male travelers?
As a woman I have a responsibility to make sure that female colleagues who follow in my footsteps learn from my experience. We have to remind our employers of their duty of care to their staff including female staff. Employers have a responsibility to make sure that their staff is as well prepared as possible for the travel they expect them to undertake. Organisational policies and in-house risk management protocols must reflect the full support of the organisation, at all levels, for staff, including women, travelling overseas and/or working in high risk areas. Specifically, they must spell out a commitment to ensure that female staff have the knowledge and confidence to mitigate and reduce the particular risks they face due to their gender.
Employers who don't take this responsibility serious, can be held liable if something goes wrong.The recently agreed and harmonised Federal Work Health and Safety laws clearly make this point.
The duties of employers can be summarised as follows:
- An employer must ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees.
- An employer must provide such information, instruction, training and supervision as may be necessary to ensure the employees' health and safety at work.
- Employees can tell the employer if they feel it is unsafe for them to work and if the employer doesn't listen and act on their concern then the employer is liable.
You can read more about the new laws governing an employer's duty of care here: Guide to the model health and safety act.
I would like to end with a few words of advise to those readers who are also employers. Offering your staff access to security advice and/or to travel safety courses demonstrates your pro-active approach to safeguarding the well being of your personnel. It helps build a healthy, trusting and positive work environment and minimises the risk of a demoralized work force or worse, of losing personal with a resulting high staff turnover (and money and resources spent on recruitment). Investing in travel safety awareness training for women is a small price to pay for ensuring that your female staff are aware, smart and confident travellers, able to focus on the purpose of their trip, and for you to have peace of mind in the knowledge that you are a responsible employer.
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