An Englishwoman abroad: Lisa O'Kelly discovers that although more women are being assaulted on holiday, or while travelling, few of them ever report the crime

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Indy Lifestyle Online
TWENTY-year-old Louise Green had five hours to kill before her flight home to London from the South of France last August.

She had spent a week with friends in St Tropez and felt relaxed and happy as she boarded the train for Nice, en route to the airport. There seemed no reason not to trust the polite and attentive Moroccan man who sat next to her and, after a friendly chat, offered to keep her bag in his hotel room and go with her for a drink until it was time to catch ber plane.

'We had quite a lot to drink, and there was a bit of flirting but nothing serious,' Louise recalls. Certainly nothing to prepare her for what happened when they went back to collect her bag. 'As soon as we got into his room he barred the door and threw me on to the bed. He was pretty strong.' The man then tore off her dress and raped her.

Louise told no-one. 'I ran out afterwards and headed straight for the airport - partly because I just wanted to get out of there, but also because I was afraid that people would think it was my fault, that I had been asking for it somehow by going back to his room with him. It was awful.'

Louise's experience is by no means uncommon. The number of British women being attacked abroad is increasing. Over the past two months, there have been three assaults on British women in Crete alone, two tour guides and one 17-year-old tourist: Crete reports a doubling of its caseload from five rapes between January and June 1992 to 10 so far this year. In other countries, solid statistics are hard to come by: British embassies in Spain, Italy and France keep no precise figures, and neither does the Foreign Office. Yet the National Victim Support Association says it has a wealth of anecdotal evidence to suggest that attacks on British women are rising: 'We've been concerned about this for two years now,' says the Association's spokeswoman, Helen Peggs.

The problem is that women who are assaulted abroad are even less likely to report it to the authorities than those attacked at home. Most victims say the main reason is the simple fear they would not be believed, and that they would be accused of 'asking for it' - especially if they were on holiday. Recent cases show that this can happen.

In Crete, the local police chief investigating the assault on the British teenager said that although inquiries into the case were continuing, he was 'looking seriously' at claims that the girl was 'in high spirits and laughing about the alleged attack with friends'.

In another case last year, a London victim support group which helped a British woman who was raped on mainland Greece were appalled to discover that the authorities were 'extremely sceptical - as though they were assuming she must have asked for it'.

But this comes as no surprise to a one-time employee of The Club (formerly Club 18-30) in Corfu and Ibiza. 'British girls still have a reputation for being very free and easy, second only to the Scandinavians,' she says. 'They are seen by tour reps, other tourists and locals alike as there for the taking.'

The image of the British woman abroad as a good-time girl can be traced back to the early Sixties, and the start of the trail which took Western hippy youth to Greece and India. Then, through the growth of the package tour, relatively emancipated British girls began booking holidays in Spain, where they scandalised Franco's heartlands with topless sunbathing. Permissiveness may now have penetrated most parts of Europe (though not holiday destinations further afield), but it seems that the British woman's reputation as an easy lay remains undiminished. If anything it has grown stronger and become more widespread with the growth in popularity of the long-haul holiday.

Bob Ward is a former hotelier on Barbados. 'British girls have shot to the top of the holiday sex league table here. It used to be Canadians, who've been coming for far longer, but the British have taken over.' The former Club 18-30 rep agrees: 'I would not say they go out looking for sex, but once they get there they really go for it. Aids hasn't changed a thing, they all just carry condoms. Drink plays a big part. Tour reps encourage girls as young as 17 and 18, some of them on their first ever holiday abroad, to drink copious amounts of cheap red wine. Lots of the organised activities are aimed at encouraging girls to get rid of their inhibitions, things like wet T-shirt contests. The reps tend to really push the sex thing, so the atmosphere gets very highly charged. Local people see it happening, so you really can't blame them for viewing British girls the way they do.'

Jeremy Muller, managing director of The Club, who is trying to distance his company from this image, denies pushing 'the sex thing', but confirms that there's a lot of it about. 'These kids are looking for 14 days of Saturday nights,' he says, but shifts the blame on to the women themselves. 'They drink in gangs in bars, which is perfectly acceptable at home, but they need to be aware nice girls just don't act like that in other countries.'

So where does this leave the independent woman traveller, who is dogged by the stereotype of the easy British girl, but does not have the option of seeking safety in numbers? 'It leaves her very vulnerable,' says Sarah Ward, 23, who thinks it will soon be too dangerous for British women to travel abroad alone.

Sarah was raped on a ferry between Corsica and Marseille. She got into conversation with one of the stewards, who invited her into his cabin. 'He produced a knife as soon as he closed the door, and I knew I was not going to get out without having sex with him. I tried to negotiate with him, but the thing that came across most strongly was that he thought that as an Englishwoman travelling alone I must be used to having sex with people I did not know very well.

'I told the captain what had happened but he laughed at me, saying it was no more than I could expect. I psyched myself up to go to the police in Marseille, but got a similar response, so I just gave up.'

It is impossible to legislate against attacks such as Sarah's. But Maggie Moss, who runs seminars on women and safety abroad and is author of The Handbook for Women Travellers (Piatkus), believes that there are steps which both tourists and tour operators could take, to make travel safer and to help alter attitudes to British women abroad.

She thinks holiday companies should issue warnings about potential dangers, inform tourists of recent incidents and point out 'black- spots' such as beaches which are renowned pick-up spots, or haunts for prostitutes.

Travel companies are not obliged to give any warnings other than those officially issued by the Foreign Office. These are rare, and usually apply only to war zones, or countries where specific threats have been made against tourists, such as Egypt. However, the Foreign Office has become worried enough this summer to have issued its first set of guidelines to embassies and consulates on how to deal with victims of rape and sexual assault. Officials are now instructed to: '(a) Listen and reassure; (b) believe the victim; (c) be aware that the victim will suffer rape trauma; (d) arrange a medical examination; (e) inform the police as soon as possible; (f) inform the

Foreign Office in London.'

'Not before time,' says Helen Peggs. 'Most embassy staff are totally untrained in dealing with rape victims; we hear a lot of them are as blimpish and hopeless as Graham Greene's Honorary Consul.'

Could the Foreign Office not consider officially requiring travel companies to issue warnings about the dangers of rape? Despite the fact that around 21 million Britons travel abroad every year, FO officials dismiss this idea out of hand, which prompts Maggie Moss to say that tourists must take matters into their own hands, doing basic advance research, and finding out on arrival about dress codes and local mores. They should make sure they observe the same rules about personal safety that apply at home, such as avoiding unlit roads and not accepting lifts from strangers.

Maggie Moss believes that the only way to dispel the myths surrounding the British woman abroad is for all of us to reappraise our approach to tourism, and question our belief in a basic right to travel where we want to, how we want to.

'We need to step back and take a look at the way we travel. We imagine that, if we have paid for a holiday, we have purchased the right to behave in the way we wish, wherever we are. That is what we really have to re-examine.'

Names of interviewees have been changed

What to do if you are attacked

Medical help is top priority; the risk of infection to cuts and bruises is high in a hot and unfamiliar climate.

If there is no hospital nearby, ask women in the local community for medical help. They can also be a source of emotional support if you are on your own, as can other women holidaymakers or travellers.

Inform the British embassy or consulate before local police, as officials will liaise with the police on your behalf, avoiding potentially stressful language barriers. On a package tour, tell the reps.

If there are no British officials on hand, take someone to the police with you - preferably someone who can speak the language.

Police in some European and Latin American countries are notoriously unsympathetic to victims of sexual assault. Don't be bullied or drawn into an argument. Simply report the crime.

Ask embassy or consulate officials if a victim support group exists.

Don't feel guilty if you wish to end the holiday and go home.

Get embassy officials or a tour rep to change your return travel arrangements on your behalf.

Ensure you have the medical documents for any insurance claim.

(Photograph omitted)

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