A horrible crime caused shock and controversy across Latin America in February 2016. The dead bodies of Argentinian backpackers María José Coni and Marina Menegazzo, aged 22 and 21 respectively, were dumped inside plastic bags, close to the beach town Montañita, in Ecuador. Originally from Mendoza, the two girls had embarked on a planned trip to Ecuador, Perú and Chile. According to the official version of the Ecuadorian government, the girls ran out of money and accepted to stay in a private house. The culprits later confessed to have sexually assaulted the victims.
However, the most shocking aspect of this crime was the debate that followed, in which the girls were blamed for their own killing. Arguments such as “they took risks” and the infamous question “why were they travelling alone?” were part of the discussion. One aspect was ignored: these girls were travelling together, and not alone.
I received similar criticism from friends when I decided to travel to Egypt, two years ago. Even though I was going to visit family there, people bombarded me with questions such as “aren’t you afraid of travelling alone as a woman?” Basically, it seems that women have to be extremely careful in order to avoid ending up dead in a plastic bag. It is indeed worrisome to notice how often public discourse around a murder implicating a female victim turns to blaming the victim herself. Evidently enough, there is another perspective to it.
The question shouldn’t be: “Why were they travelling alone?” but: “Why wouldn't they travel alone?” Why is it an invitation to crime when a woman wants to see the world and gain life experiences on her own? Does this mean that women should abstain from travelling or even wait until they have found a male companion for their journey? The arguments used to blame Coni and Menegazzo were refuted by thousands of women who started using the hashtag #itravelalone, to show their support for the girls’ dream of seeing the world.
In her 2014 essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” Rebecca Solnit tackles this issue and points out that, on several levels, women are routinely reduced to silence. Solnit concludes that the silencing of women is a dangerous phenomenon, because it eliminates points of view from the gender-related dialogue, and creates a hierarchy of value, where the voice of a woman is heard last, or left unheard altogether.
The tendency to blame and silence the victim is often challenged. This happened when a powerful Facebook post by a Paraguayan student told the story from the victim’s point of view. Titled “Yesterday they killed me,” the post questioned those who silenced Coni and Menegazzo’s voices, and called out those who would limit the independent spirit of women, rather than punishing crime committed by men.
Women are told not to travel alone, but are men told not to attack or murder unaccompanied women? Women are told not to dress provocatively, but are men told not rape and assault women they find attractive? Why do women need to be told to imagine and actively prevent their own murders, their own rape, the imminent violence against them? Why do men need to be told not to be violent against women? Is it not evident that, by legal and moral given, it is absolutely wrong to do all these things?
I was raised by a man who believes in the equality of men and women. My father has always told me that I am strong and capable, and that if I want to travel, I should do so. I did travel to Egypt, and not in spite of my friends, or following my father's advice, but because I am free and not afraid to experience new things, to speak for myself, to travel alone.
Words: Astrid Scheurmann
Copy edited by: Elena Stanciu