Safety in Online Travel Communities: Interview with ‘Host a Sister’

Olive green brackground with the words ‘Host a Sister’ in Grey on the right and three diverse women on the right.

The past two decades have witnessed a surge in the creation of online travel communities. With that, new worries and concerns about safety have arisen- specifically for women, trans folks, LGBTQIA+, Black, Muslim and other marginalized and historically oppressed communities. Before sites like AirBnb allowed hosts to rent out their home to travelers, the most popular travel community was Couchsurfing- a platform in which local hosts allowed travelers a bed or couch to host them during their stay. Although the community was designed to push back against the expensive hotel industry and encourage true human connection and cross cultural understanding between people, a number of criticisms began to form over how the platform has handled sexual harassment and sexual assault. As a general rule, Couchsurfing takes a neutrality position, stating that it “is not responsible for conduct that occurs between members.” Members do have the ability to leave a rating or recommendation for each other, but little further recourse exists for members who sexually assault their guests or visa versa. Many victims of assault were given the option to leave a negative review of the assailant as the only recourse, and even in that case, the assaulter could just leave a negative review of the victim. In response to the lack of awareness, an array of networks began to form in protest, showing you can create fun travel communities while still prioritizing safety and the unique needs of all travelers- for example, the Traveling Black Women Network and the Queer Travel Exchange.

“Host a Sister” is a global community of women (regardless of which gender was assigned at birth), and a place where members (sisters) can connect to form friendships around the world during their travels or even share their homes for free as part of a cultural exchange. Through Host A Sister, members can find free accommodations with a local sister when traveling, find a local sister to meetup with in their hometown or meetup with other sisters traveling to the same location, share their home with other women, offer their advice and friendship to another sister, find a travel buddy and plan a trip together, or organize events together. In addition to creating a safe haven where all things travel can be discussed, members often share words of encouragement, empowerment, and provide potentially life saving safety advice to others. Recently Host a Sister stepped in to provide emergency relocation aid for refugees fleeing Ukraine amidst the outbreak of war. We had the opportunity to speak with the Host a Sister network creator Rashvynda Kaur to learn more.

NSVRC: Can you tell us a little about how ‘Host a Sister’ got started and how the online community has helped women feel safe traveling?

Rashvinda Kaur: I started Host a Sister in May 2019. I saw women couchsurfers complaining about harassment by their hosts so I decided to start something.

You have recently sprung into action to help Ukrainian refugees in the midst of the ongoing war. There was also a big awareness on the part of the admin team about safety, trafficking, and protecting folks identity. How did this mindfulness of safety become ‘best practices’, as its often overlooked by other travel groups.

Yes, when the members started posting how they’re opening their homes for Ukrainian refugees, the group got so much publicity. Within 48 hours we were getting around 10,000 accounts wanting to join our network. This made us realize that we could be being watched by the wrong people. We don’t know everyone in the group and we may have spies (a trafficking concern) so we took the initiative to tighten security. We did this by doing things like closing comments so both the members and refugee’s personal information was not all out for everyone to see. We agreed that these conversations should be in private, which would also assure that nobody would be able to share any sensitive info out via screenshots.

Can you share what a huge impact this has made in people’s lives? The group has gone from leisurely travel and meet ups to providing a life saving lifeline to refugees.

I didn’t see this coming at all. We did help during the bushfires in Australia too in 2021 but this is different. This is bigger. Many members felt so inspired by seeing other people offering to host refugees that they decided to make offers to help too. It has also helped people change perspectives and start being more kind and more accepting to help others in need, even if those people are “strangers” to them. There have been so many successful stories of refugees being helped.

Is this the first time you have used the space for humanitarian efforts?

No, we have used this during the pandemic for emergency/urgent travel for healthcare workers in 2020 and for the Australian bushfires in 2021.

This is so much unpaid work on the part of the admins team. What keeps you going?

The success stories and the kind, grateful members in our inboxes. That’s what keeps us going and wanting to do this even for free. It makes us happy to see the world being a better place.

What are the difficulties? What are the successes? Have you had any issues in the group or struggles you’ve had to overcome?

Like any group, the issues we have are sometimes keyboard warriors, unnecessary debates on posts, and the occasional mean comments. Unfortunately there sometimes can be trolls on posts but we take quick actions by cleaning up all the mean comments and block the person. The successes are definitely the highlight. On our Instagram account there are hundreds of success stories posted.

Anything else you want the world to know about your work or the ‘Host a Sister’ community?

That more and more women are able to travel safely and be a apart of it so we can make the world a better and kinder and safer place.

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