Self defense for women is one of those skills all backpacking women should have. It has nothing to do with fear and everything to do with feeling empowered, aware and knowledgeable.
There is no question: a solo woman on the road is more vulnerable than a man or a woman traveling in a couple or a group.
Rape is something a woman faces anytime, anywhere, but it's hard to imagine how doubly horrible an assault would be far from home. The good news is that these assaults are extremely rare.
What do men who are planning a sexual assault look for? They look for women who are inattentive or busy or intoxicated, who have long hair they can grab, who are carrying packages, who look defenseless, or whom they can assault without being noticed - in a lonely or deserted place, for example.
Most self defense for women is about deterrence. Men tend to assault women only if they think they can get away with it. If they feel a woman could be trouble, they will usually look for a more willing - and less complicated - victim.
What I've learned through self defense is to use everything at my disposal - whether self defence products or techniques - to show a potential rapist that I am simply not worth the trouble. This includes:
Some training, for example through women's self defense classes is, in my opinion, essential before you go. I took several courses before heading to Africa on my own for a year. I never used anything physical I learned, but I felt far more confident knowing I could if I needed to. It certainly strengthened my mental attitude though!
Martial arts training is different from pure self defense for women. Knowing judo doesn't guarantee you'll scare off a rapist. A self defense program is much more than physical - fighting is a last resort after diplomacy or other tactics have failed. An excellent overview of the various facets of protecting yourself can be found on this US-based self defense site.
Also worth examining are additional safety tips for women on how to avoid crime abroad or unwanted male attention. These safety tips include staying away from isolated areas, teaming up with others, observing some hotel room safety precautions, dressing and acting conservatively, and being careful around men you don't know, especially where alcohol or drugs are involved.
Ultimately, if you feel in any way in danger, you should have only one thing on your mind: escape. Don't run away - runtowards safety.
A few products, like self defense mace or self defense sprays, can separate you from an attacker long enough to make a run for safety.
A few more absolute No's for good measure (from a policewoman):
If you are a victim of sexual assault...
When I was living in Algeria, four Western women whose husbands were working in the country were assaulted by local Algerian men. The women had walked along the edge of town into a secluded area wearing short shorts and halter tops while the vast majority of the town's women were covered head to toe.
I'm not blaming the women for being assaulted, because it is never a woman's fault. But I am blaming the ignorance and lack of responsibility they demonstrated by leaving the safety of their compound, wearing clothing that in a deeply Muslim country sent a completely different message than the one it would have back home.
Training in self defense for women might have helped. Don't gamble with your safety.