Why You Need to Read “Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad”

Have you ever considered volunteering abroad, or known someone who has traveled to another country to volunteer? It’s an increasingly popular trend for understandable reasons: international travel, opportunities to make a difference, and valuable experience to put on your resume, to name a few. It’s an easy choice, right?


Volunteer travel can certainly have enormous impacts on local community, but unfortunately, these impacts are often harmful rather than helpful.

Though I didn’t know it when I first volunteered abroad in 2011, there are a lot of considerations that should be made when thinking about volunteering abroad to ensure the project is a success. This means the local community being served is receiving a service that is needed and provided by appropriately trained volunteers, in a way that works toward a long-term and sustainable solution.

Sound complicated? It can be if you don’t know where to start.

Fortunately, our friends from Learning Service have written you an essential guide about learning service, a term borrowed from the popular service-learning model. I cannot recommend it enough.

A review from Elizabeth Becker, author of "Overbooked" that reads: "A must read for anyone considering volunteer tourism."

The Learning Service Guide

The Learning Service guide starts by explaining the idea behind learning service, which is simply that learning must occur before and while service is taking place. If you know nothing about the organization, locals, culture, or country you’re working with then you will be limited in the value you can provide, at best.

The guide goes on to cover the essentials, as the title suggests:

  • How to decide if you are really to volunteer abroad
  • What to look for when selecting a volunteer opportunity in line with your morals and values
  • How to prepare yourself for a volunteer opportunity
  • Considerations while volunteering abroad
  • What to expect when you return home from a volunteer experience

Want a teaser?

It’s your lucky day! The folks at Learning Service were lovely enough to let me share this excerpt with you, especially for female travelers:

Gender Issues for Volunteers to Consider

The following is an extract from Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad,written by Claire Bennett, Joseph Collins, Zahara Heckscher and Daniela Papi-Thornton.

Gender issues can be sensitive for volunteers. Female travelers are frequently warned about the dangers of traveling alone overseas, and in every corner of the world, it is unfortunately true that women are much more likely than men to be the victims of sexual harassment and assault. We have heard from female volunteers about experiences that range from having strangers yell out rude taunts to being groped on a crowded bus. Although these incidents are not your fault, there are some things you can do to lower your risk. For example, one challenge for female volunteers overseas is that they may focus too intensely on trying to integrate and, in the process, inadvertently allow their personal safety to become a secondary issue. One volunteer in Indonesia let her host father put his arm around her when they walked around the village. She let it slide thinking it must be culturally appropriate, whereas he interpreted as a green light to initiate a sexual relationship. In contrast, a volunteer in India who knew it was not acceptable for men and women to touch, learned to not even offer a handshake to members of the opposite sex for fear of it being misinterpreted. Instead, she would press her hands together in a namaste as an alternate greeting and thereby avoid any physical contact. As you will already have enough of a reason to attract unwanted attention as an outsider, our advice is to err on the side of caution. Susy, who volunteered in Nepal said, “Traveling as a solo woman I learned that I needed to think things through carefully and trust my gut instinct.” Listen to your intuition—it’s better to risk offending someone than to put yourself in a precarious situation.

Photo of a tour guide and tourist from my trip to Mongolia. I was traveling through the country as a solo female, and though I didn't feel particularly unsafe, many locals expressed concern and advice for staying safe in the city. I'm use to people being surprised but I made sure to take their cautions seriously and avoid taking unnecessary risks (flashing my cash or camera, appearing lost late at night, etc.).
Photo of a tour guide and tourist from my trip to Mongolia. I was traveling through the country as a solo female, and though I didn’t feel particularly unsafe, many locals expressed concern and advice for staying safe in the city. I’m use to people being surprised but I made sure to take their cautions seriously and avoid taking unnecessary risks (flashing my cash or camera, appearing lost late at night, etc.)

There are various ways to respond to gender-based harassment. Responses can range from saying “no,” firmly but nicely, to yelling, fighting, and/or running away. Modify your response according to the situation. We strongly recommend that you ask local women for their advice on safety. In Mexico City, Zahara learned to scream as loud as she could at subway gropers, “Don’t touch me,” which broke their anonymity and shamed (or scared) them into stopping.

Your nationality, religion, and race might compound the gender stereotypes you face. Katie Boswell said of her time in India, “The most challenging part about volunteering was the assumptions that people had about me because I was a white girl—for example, being automatically seen as ‘loose’ even though I wore salwar qamizand was careful not to behave in inappropriate ways such as dancing or drinking alcohol.” When you confront these attitudes, take a moment to reflect on the stereotypes that foreigners face in your own culture, to put your experience in context, and try to find a supportive friend to help you process the specific challenges you are facing.

Gender roles may be more rigidly defined in other countries. Certain dances, religious practices, and spaces may be designated as the exclusive realm of men or women. Some female volunteers are informally granted “honorary male” status and the license to participate in some traditionally male activities such as going out drinking. At other times, women volunteers may be expected to confine themselves strictly to the female realm, for example, in clothing norms. Yet often, female volunteers have easier access to many aspects of local culture, such as cooking, visits to the market, festival preparation, and spending time with children.  Male or female, you will probably find advantages and disadvantages to your gender identity. 

Some cultural practices may surprise you or offend you. Women, for example, may be expected to wait until the men finish eating before they begin their meal. Sons may receive preferential treatment when it comes to household chores, going out with friends, or university education. In many countries, women get less of a choice in whom they will marry. And in some countries, female genital cutting is practiced. Examine the difference between accepting cultural differences and tolerating injustice, and choose what to accept and what to challenge. If you decide to rock the boat, do so gently, and only after deepening your understanding of the issue and considering how your actions might impact your safety and others’. One volunteer host told us how international volunteers could be positive female role models. “When we had women volunteers from the US and Europe, they respected local culture but also showed many people in our community that women can be independent, travel alone, be professional and strong, and that these do not necessary entail improper behavior on their part, or a threat to ‘family honor.’” Ultimately, you may not be the best person to challenge unfair practices, but you could offer support to local people and organizations that can drive this change in the long term.

Men also have to consider their relationship to gender role politics in their host country. The way you interact with women may come under close scrutiny, so be sure you act with the utmost respect and do not inadvertently reinforce unhelpful gender stereotypes. In some cultures, there may be pressure to go to “men only” nights out, where business is conducted to the exclusion of female colleagues. Some volunteers we talked to felt pressured by colleagues to engage sex workers. There may be ways you can challenge gender norms without damaging relationships, for example, by cooking for your friends or washing your own clothes—and politely declining to take part in activities that strike you as unequal.

Want to help? First you must be willing to learn. Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad, is available to purchase online and in bookshops worldwide. You can also find out more about Learning Service from their website: www.learningservice.info or follow them on FacebookTwitter or Instagram.

Photo of the cover of the Learning Service book with a review from Noam Chomsky that reads "An extraordinary contribution...a manifesto for doing good well".

Ready to read? Get the book now.


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