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'April's plane was late getting into the Nairobi airport. It was well past 10 pm when the taxi dropped her at her hotel. She was tired, yet declined the bellhop’s help as she struggled into the elevator and down the hall with her heavy bags. Her shoulder strap slipped, spilling the contents onto the floor. Just then, a friendly young man came around the corner from the direction of her room, “Let me give you a hand.”
“No, no thanks, I've got it”
“You don’t look like you’ve got it. What room are you going to?”
She paused before answering. “Just around the corner, but I'm okay, really.”
By this time his hands were full of a collection of April’s things. “No worries, I'm just meeting friends so give me that, you look tired. I know what its like to have a tough day too. ” He reached out and tugged on one of her heavier bags.
She repeated, “No thanks, I’m really fine. I’ve got it.”
Still holding onto her bag, he said, “Too proud to accept help?”
For a moment, April held onto her bag, but then she let go. This relatively harmless interaction between April and this friendly, helpful stranger indicated a willingness to trust him. And by ignoring her better judgement she gave over control.
As she came to her door, she opened it and said, “Thank you so much! I’ll take it from here.”
“Hey we can leave the door open, I’ll just set these bags down in your closet. Then I promise I’ll leave.”
She let him in, but he didn't leave……
(Adapted from Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals..., Gavin DeBecker, Dell Publishing 1997).
Humanitarians are often astute and healthily cynical when it comes to sizing up others, and yet many women can still relate to stories like this. There are moments when weariness can trump our first instincts. Violence expert, Gavin DeBecker, in his book, Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence helps women understand that their own instinct, intuition, and emotional radar is often ignored at their peril. De Becker convincingly argues that you can better protect yourself from gender based violence by tuning into what you know and feel in the early stages of an encounter with a predator. I believe that every woman should read his book. But women who frequently travel and work alone are more at risk than the norm.
In the story, April felt uncomfortable from the moment she encountered the “helpful” individual who became her attacker. She didn’t listen to herself because she rationally couldn’t identify anything in the man’s behavior to explain what she felt. The man didn’t look like her image of an attacker. Most predators don’t have distinguishing physical signs. But De Becker has found in his years of experience that there are several signals sent by a potential attacker that might reveal his intent. His list includes:
Your instincts are designed to help you notice danger. Rather than ignore your intuition, think about getting better at paying attention to it. You know what safe feels like.
A brief note: This article addresses the nature of predators, not other contexts of RSA (Rape and Sexual Assault). Gender-based violence takes many forms and occurs in many settings - many of which can only be prevented by strengthening operational security measures. In either case, women are not to blame for what they’ve experienced, but are their own best advocates nonetheless.
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