Charlotte was 19 years old and trying to ignore the stares from other passengers as she boarded her flight home from Australia. What began as a holiday romance in Vietnam left her with just three souvenirs: her passport, some broken ribs, and an unwanted pregnancy.
Now 33 years old, Charlotte is one of several women I’ve spoken to who escaped an abusive relationship whilst travelling. Some of them had jumped from windows with their suitcases. Others left with nothing. All of them started their journeys as a rite of passage into independence, hoping to meet new friends from around the world. But being miles from loved ones and familiar support groups made it so much harder to know where to turn when they needed help.
It’s something I first looked into when my friend Katie* called me from Cambodia to tell me that – yet again – her ex-boyfriend had broken into her room and threatened to hurt her.
I was on the other side of the world, in London, browsing long-deleted resources and defunct charity websites with no idea what to do. It left me thinking how much harder this search for help would be for someone scared and alone, their only connection back home via shaky hostel WiFi.
For Charlotte, the paralysis of figuring out what to do grew overwhelming when her boyfriend, Mike*, became violent after they met in Vietnam. As any veteran backpacker will attest, relationships on the road can become all-consuming incredibly quickly. “You're not just going into work and then meeting in the pub,” explains Charlotte. “You’re seeing this beautiful country, and it's very intense, and it's just the two of you. It sounds very naive, but I felt that I loved him.”
For many of the women that I spoke with, trouble began when the next stop on a holiday romance was visiting their boyfriend’s hometown. This was the case for Charlotte when a different side to Mike emerged in Australia. One who “hit the roof” when she’d been out, trying to make some new friends.
When Charlotte learned that she was unexpectedly pregnant, Mike reacted to the news by pushing her down a flight of concrete steps and locking her outside his flat. “I lost all my clothes, money, and traveller’s cheques,” she says. “I was terrified and I felt like I had literally nowhere to go.”
So often in these cases, the bravery of one friend has meant everything to a survivor with no other connections in town. Charlotte’s only friend in Australia managed to rescue her passport from Mike and helped pay for her flight home.
In hindsight, Charlotte reckons there may have been accessible domestic violence refuges for foreigners in Melbourne, but “when you've just been twatted by your partner and you're pregnant and you're frightened, the information that is hard to find becomes even harder”.
Like many women who’ve survived abuse abroad, Charlotte never called home because she was ashamed and didn’t want to worry anyone. “I was terrified that if I told [my mum] anything, that it would all come tumbling out,” she explains. After a hellish flight home to England, she hid at a friend’s place for two weeks “because that was when the bruising had gone down,” says Charlotte. “Only after I'd had the abortion did I go back to my mum and dad's house.”
Charlotte was travelling in the mid-00s when her address book was “telephone numbers scribbled on scraps of paper”. Today’s social media connects travellers to the world beyond their tourism bubbles, but it doesn’t always reduce the isolation that many women still experience.
That was the case for Lucy, a travel blogger, whose time in Germany this year was a far cry from the fairytale romance that her followers saw on Instagram.
“I had people message me sometimes and say, ‘my God, I just want to have a relationship like yours,’” says Lucy. “And I honestly felt sick because we had just had a screaming row or he’d just smacked me around the face.”
After several thwarted attempts to flee, and the help of her workplace, Lucy returned to the UK earlier this year. She’s since written about the reality of abuse abroad and has been overwhelmed with messages from other survivors. “It’s so important to talk,” she says.
Asking for help wasn’t a problem for my friend Katie. Everyone knew that her ex, Rick*, had become obsessive and violent, turning up wherever she went in Phnom Penh. But the friends she’d made – a group of party-loving human rights students – turned a blind eye.
“If you interrupted the fun, then you were the problem,” says Katie. “You’re going to someone’s leaving party every month, so they just don’t have deep enough roots to have any loyalty.”
A carousel of new faces in the city was a gift to abusers like Rick. He could cycle through friends before they saw his true colours.
But what really frightened Katie was how many British men in Cambodia felt they had nothing to hide when it came to hurting local women. In her article, ‘Calling Out Sexpats’, journalist Joanna Chiu writes how this attitude is partly driven by “a lack of accountability” for behaviour that “that could (or should)” have these men arrested in their home countries.
The unequal power dynamic “is a big thing for older guys,” Katie says. “They think they’re running away from feminism.”
Surrounded by creepy men and unhelpful bystanders, she found solidarity in private Facebook groups for women local or new to Phnom Penh.
“A lot of the conversation is about basics like where do you find tampons,” says Katie. “But then every so often someone will talk about something really scary that’s happening to them and it's actually a good way to get support. But because it’s such a small town there’s a risk that someone will say something to the person you're talking about.”
Katie eventually settled in the UK, but she fears Rick is waiting for her whenever she visits Cambodia. I spoke with Baljit Bains, a partner at Wilson Solicitors, to get some practical advice for women in Katie’s position.
Bains reminds British travellers that what classifies as domestic abuse will vary from country to country. “Be aware of the details of the embassy,” she says. “The number for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is very helpful because it then links to a consular officer. They can tell them about all the professional support or services that can be available.” FCO assistance can range from emergency travel documents to contacting family back home.
Bains also advises anyone contacting local police abroad that “things can escalate quite quickly. If [someone] has reported an assault they may possibly be involved in some kind of trial out there.” She recommends using the government’s list of lawyers abroad and checking whether your travel insurance covers legal fees. A more holistic service is available for American travellers at Pathways To Safety: a charity that provides an international, toll-free crisis line and expert case managers.
Whilst there is no way to completely prepare for a backpacking adventure turning into a nightmare, one thing is clear to Charlotte. “Just being there for each other, that's the main thing,” she says. “I will always tell people what happened to me because I think women suffer more when our shame keeps us quiet.”