The Global Education Office has recently reached out to the Women’s Center to begin exploring the issue of sexual assault during study abroad programs.

An anonymous guest column, titled “A college girl’s guide to not getting raped abroad” and published in The Chronicle Nov. 26, has stimulated some conversation about Duke students’ experiences with sexual assault while studying abroad. Both the GEO and Women’s Center have expressed interest in finding out more about this issue.

“The safety and security of our students is of paramount importance to us,” Margaret Riley, assistant vice provost for undergraduate global education, wrote in an email.

In response to the column, Jamie Snow, program coordinator at the GEO, reached out to Sheila Broderick, gender violence intervention services coordinator, to begin discussions about sexual assault abroad and determine appropriate steps to mitigate the issue.

Some students, including sophomore Mattie Goldman, noted that the guest column has made them more conscious of gender violence issues abroad. Goldman will be spending the Fall 2013 semester abroad.

“I will definitely be traveling with a different perspective—one that is more aware and cautious,” Goldman said.

Currently all students planning to study abroad receive a handbook from the GEO, which includes a three-paragraph section called “Special Note to Women.” The note says women should be aware of the difference in gender roles across cultures and countries, and it warns them about possible street harassment. The passage concludes that women should understand that they are not necessarily treated the same way that they are in the United States by men in other countries.

“Prepare yourself by trying to understand in advance not only the gender roles and assumptions which may prevail elsewhere, but also the uniqueness of U.S. gender politics, which may or may not be understood, much less prevail, in other countries,” the handbook says.

Broderick, however, said she does not think the handbook passage is sufficient in preparing Duke women to protect themselves sexual predators and differing gender standards abroad.

“I understand that this is a complicated thing, but this [passage] is not going to prevent rape,” Broderick said. “It’s important that students don’t confuse safety issues with trying to be culturally sensitive. I doubt communicating ‘No, you cannot touch my body’ differs that much from country to country.”

The incidents described in the guest column were not reported to the GEO or Women’s Center. Because each country has its own legal standards, the GEO relies on in-country staff to assist in these emergencies. When incidents are reported, the office works closely with the Women’s Center and the Office of Institutional Equity to help the sutdent victim. But these resources can only be of use if the victim reports the incident, Riley noted.

“We cannot assist with a problem unless we know about it,” she said.

There is no numerical data for the number of Americans who experience sexual assault while studying abroad, Megan Erhardt, communications manager of the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network, wrote in an email.

Even if there was specific data, the number of sexual assaults would still be greatly under-reported, added Broderick.

“I hear too many stories like this,” she said. “We first need to figure out the scope of the problem.”

As a possible solution, Broderick proposed that an exit survey be distributed to students after participating in study abroad. People are more likely to report violent encounters on an anonymous survey than they are to the police at the time of the incident, she said.