Sunday, December 26, 2010

News from the 12/9/10 Peace Corps Meeting

It was a cold, snowy day in Washington, D.C. when four members of the First Response Action Coalition, the volunteer board which manges First Response Action, met with Peace Corps officials at Peace Corps' headquarters. Representatives from the Office of Medical Services, Safety & Security and the Office of Special Services were in attendance as well as the Chief of Staff, Deputy Director and an official whose position is focused on examining Volunteer and staff sexual assault training during Pre-Service Training(PST) and beyond.

Casey Frazee, Karen Moldovan, Kate Finn and Jess Smochek met with Peace Corps officials to discuss the genesis of First Response Action and the current and ongoing need for policy, training, response and treatment reform. Peace Corps was apologetic to the survivors on the Coalition and the other women and men who have survived trauma and were not well-treated by Peace Corps officials.

While Casey and Jess focused on the human cost of the lack of consistency with current protocols, Karen, with her background as the Program Manager at the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, focused on best practices in the field and models to work with survivors. Kate outlined resources available to Peace Corps and discussed items that would strengthen survivor support resources, such as a non-Peace Corps staff advisory committee and the review of training and support materials by best-practice agencies in the field.

Peace Corps briefed the Coalition members on their current changes in training and response to survivors. (Coalition Note: Specifics on treatment and follow-up were not discussed due to time constraints, but this is high on the priority list in follow-up conversations.)

Highlights from Peace Corps' updates include:
  • An updated handbook to replace the circa 1996 - 2004 'Rape Response Handbook' is anticipated to be approved and ready to be distributed during the first quarter of 2011.
  • A version of the Survivor Bill of Rights, outlining Peace Corps' commitment to Volunteers who are survivors of assault and rape is also expected to be approved and released in the first quarter of 2011.
  • Peace Corps Medical Officers (PCMOs) and Regional Security Officers (RSOs) are receiving more training and are being more rigorously managed. RSOs now need to have increased certification to serve in their positions.
  • Peace Corps is consulting with other agencies on how to improve training, including the Office of Violence Against Women, the Dept. of Defense, the FBI and the American Foreign Service, among others.
The meeting closed with a commitment from Peace Corps that a designated staff member and First Response Action founder Casey Frazee will keep in contact. Peace Corps made a commitment to share the approved materials (survivor bill of rights, updated handbook, etc.) with First Response Action. Peace Corps also asked First Response Action to provide a resource list of agencies and individuals who could be catalysts for change in the development of improved protocol for sexual assault and rape.

Peace Corps officials at the meeting appeared to be engaged and committed to Volunteer safety and security.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," says Coalition member Karen about the tone of the Peace Corps meeting and commitment to continue a working relationship.

The work has only just begun.

First Response Action Coalition members in front of Peace Corps headquarters
From L to R: Jess, Karen, Casey and Kate

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Peace Corps Meeting 12/9/10

This Thursday 12/9/10, members of the First Response Action Coalition are meeting with Peace Corps staff in D.C. to discuss improvement efforts to sexual assault and rape response protocol and support. Pertinent details and outcomes of the meeting will be posted following the meeting.

Thank you for your support - together we can help make change to better support current and future Volunteers!


Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Damages of Victim Blaming

Within circles of professionals who work with issues of sexual assault, domestic violence, rape and physical assault, the term "victim blaming" is quite common. Victim blaming is when a victim of assault or violence is blamed for being the one responsible for bringing on the attack.

According to the World Health Organization, "Negative social reactions to rape (ex. victim blaming) are linked to higher instances of PTSD." Research has also shown that "Of all human experience of trauma, sexual trauma is second in severity only to those who have experiences active combat."*

Negative reactions are incredibly damaging to survivors and First Response Action Coalition member Meg Long goes into more detail about the issue of victim blaming.

Imagine you are walking across the street to get something from the corner store and a car hits you. Runs right into you and knocks you across both lanes. Dazed, shocked, and in pain, you stumble to a passing pedestrian and ask for help. The pedestrian looks at you and starts asking why you were walking across the street. "Didn’t you know the street is for cars? Your clothes are dark colors, how did you expect the drivers to see you with such dark clothes? It’s late to be walking to the store; do you always go to the store so late?"

How many pedestrians who are hit by cars receive this type of reaction from those they tell their story to? Not many. Why? Because as a society we generally do not blame people who have bad things happen to them. Except when someone is sexually assaulted. We ask if they had been drinking, what they were wearing, what part of town they were in, did they know the people they were with, were they out very late. Why do people ask these questions? In order to make sense of the situation. They want to know that it wouldn’t happen to them because they wouldn’t dress that way, or drink that much, or hang out with those types of people. The fact is sexual assault doesn’t make sense to the average person. It shouldn’t make sense to the average person because the average person would not force himself or herself on someone else.

"There have been many cases where the reaction a survivor receives after the assault is reported to be more traumatizing than the assault itself. Victims who report and receive disastrous response (disbelief, lack of protection or support) have more long term negative trauma than those who never tell." (Hindman 1990 & 1999)

After being physically assaulted the survivor then has to succumb to verbal assault by those who decide to continue hurting the victim instead of helping him or her heal. Only 4% of sexual assault reported by adult women resulted in the conviction of their offenders. (Tjaden & Thonnes, 2006) The illogical and inconsistent manner in which sexual assault survivors are blamed for the crime committed against them is discussed in the following article by Amanda Hess posted on No other crime is looked at in such a way. Sexual assault is the only crime where a victim needs to prove his or her innocence.

The first step in reversing this practice and supporting those who are sexually assaulted is to acknowledge that victim blaming is occurring. Victim impact is substantially reduced when victims are believed, protected and adequately supported. Disagree with those who are questioning the victim’s integrity and innocence. By supporting the victim and not tolerating any further assault on the survivor we can then begin to build positive and supportive communities. At any website that addresses the issue of sexual assault you will undoubtedly see the sentence: ‘It is never the victims fault.’ This sentence is common for two reasons: 1. It is never the victim’s fault. 2. Despite the fact that it is never the victim’s fault, we, as a society tend to blame the victim.

We need to move forward to the action/behavioral phase and start responding in a way that shows survivors of sexual assault that is never their fault.

Meg Long

Kenya 2003-2005

For those who know someone who has survived physical and sexual assault, it is important to meet them where they're at - listen, acknowledge and offer support. For survivors of physical and sexual assault, it is important to know that it is not your fault. Self-blame plagues many survivors and it is more damaging for recovery.

*Quote cited from Wilson, Smith & Johnson in Figley, 1985

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Best Practices for Peace Corps Reform of Physical and Sexual Assault

It is critically important to be aware of best practices in the field when undergoing systemic change. In a new feature, News from the Field, First Response Action Coalition member Kate Finn discusses sustainability and best practices from government resources that Peace Corps could use as models when revamping their physical and sexual assault protocols.

Peace Corps Pre-Service Training (PST) is one of the most intense learning environments that Volunteers will experience during their time of service. Volunteers learn Peace Corps policies and protocols, how to live and work in a new culture and how to implement relevant community development projects. There are two themes emphasized during this period: cultural integration and sustainability. Sustainability is loosely defined as the process of garnering community support to start a project and building further support so the project lives on after the Volunteer has completed their service. Sustainability is a lofty but important goal and, if achieved, will result in demonstrable positive change for the people in that community.

As a PCV in Costa Rica, the concept of sustainability was never far from my consciousness. At the risk of sounding glib, if not slightly heretical, I will share what became my Volunteer group’s unofficial motto during our time of service: “If you’re working hard, you’re not doing your job!” This motto was a constant reminder (a) to keep humor on our side and (b) that our energy was much better spent building on our community’s successes rather than re-inventing the wheel.

First Response Action (FRA) is asking the Peace Corps to do the same. As a coalition, FRA has identified organizations with specific expertise in the area of crime prevention while abroad, and response to U.S. citizens who become victims of violent crime while abroad. These organizations have already built prevention training curricula, identified critical topic areas, and developed salient protocols – so it seems natural to bring them into the discussion.

Here’s a piece of trivia for you - Peace Corps is an independent agency directly under Congress, not under the State Department. As such, Peace Corps has access to extensive resources built right into the Federal government. Here are a few examples of relevant government resources that we have found thus far.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

CDC has comprehensive resources that break out types and techniques of prevention, the way culture influences the dynamics and reporting of sexual assault, and ways to effectively implement a training program. CDC defines prevention in three steps:

· Primary Prevention: Approaches that take place before sexual violence has occurred to prevent initial perpetration or victimization.

· Secondary Prevention: Immediate responses after sexual violence has occurred to deal with the consequences of violence in the short-term.

· Tertiary Prevention: Long-term responses after sexual violence has occurred to deal with the lasting consequences of violence and sex offender treatment interventions.

CDC has a proven, comprehensive and survivor-centered approach to this issue. Peace Corps can only benefit from partnering with CDC to update their existing training program both for Volunteers and in-country staff.

FBI, State Department and U.S. Department of Justice

Response protocols and crafting survivor-centered policies: The FBI has a dedicated Victim Assistance Unit that would be a valuable resource to Peace Corps in the development of immediate response protocols to sexual and physical assault. The State Department and the U.S. Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime are other organizations that keep abreast of national research related to sexual assault and victimization that would aid the Peace Corps in developing trainings and responses that are relevant and workable in today’s international setting.

U.S. Military

SAPRO is the organization responsible for the oversight of Department of Defense (DoD) sexual assault policy. The Department of Defense is committed to the prevention of sexual assault, with the vision “To enable military readiness by establishing a culture free of sexual assault.” The Department has implemented a comprehensive policy to ensure the safety, dignity and well being of all members of the Armed Forces. Our men and women serving throughout the world deserve nothing less, and their leaders — both Military and civilian — are committed to maintaining a workplace environment that rejects sexual assault and reinforces a culture of prevention, response and accountability. Source.

FRA commends the U.S. Military for their extensive efforts to improve their response to sexual assault. We feel that their willingness to partner with experts on this issue demonstrates a strong commitment to improving sexual assault response services for military personnel. FRA recommends that Peace Corps consult with the DoD SAPRO and their partners to similarly strengthen and improve PC’s response. Within the military, these partnerships have led to the development of a training program for civilian victim advocates to better support service member victims of sexual assault and enhancing the national hotline with resources for military survivors. Innovate partnerships with individuals and agencies with expertise in sexual assault prevention are being utilized to shift the culture in the military to prevent sexual assault.

Over 50 years, Peace Corps has formally and informally gathered experience and knowledge on all aspects of the Volunteer experience. They have recorded crime since 1990. Bringing this knowledge together with another agency’s specific expertise on the area of response to violent crime will not only augment Peace Corps’ response to Volunteer survivors today but also establish a precedent for future consultation thereby ensuring sustainability. As national best practices change and grow, so too Peace Corps response would evolve to better serve those Volunteers who become victims of violent crime during their time of service.

As a member of the FRA Coalition, I respectfully submit that in order to produce comprehensive, survivor-centered training and policies, Peace Corps must consult with these and other non-governmental agencies. FRA is working to see that policies are created and implemented that reflect national best practices. This will ensure that Volunteers who are victimized during their time of service have access to resources through Peace Corps that facilitate healing and wholeness on their own terms.

Kate Finn, RPCV Costa Rica

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Survivor Support: Part I

Self-care is vitally important for survivors of physical and sexual assault. One of our First Response Action Coalition members, Meg Long, tackles this issue in a new Self-Care Corner series that will run monthly. In these columns, Meg will discuss various issues that face Volunteers who are survivors of physical and sexual assault. In this first piece, Meg addresses the important subject of support.

It’s not you, it’s them

I recently provided a continuing education workshop on self-care and empathetic listening for the volunteers that I manage. I work at a non-profit organization where the volunteers are imperative to day-to-day function. As a result they have a lot of interaction with our clients, who are in crisis. All the clients have heart-wrenching stories, which they share with staff and volunteers. As I was taking part in the training I was reminded of something that is brought up frequently when discussing self- care and empathetic listening. It is a concept that I think we all are aware of, though I had never heard it put into a theory until a class I took in graduate school entitled ‘ Cultural aspects of coping with grief and loss’.

It breaks down to this: when one is grieving- and grieving pertains to any loss, the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, the loss of one’s sense of power, any loss- those one speaks with will fall into one of three groups. One group will be very helpful and positive. This group will listen well and be actively involved in the grieving process, forming a positive support system. The second group is very negative and harmful. This is the group of people who are more interested in giving advice and judging than listening. They do not listen to what one is feeling, but tell one how they should be feeling. This group can delay and damage the grieving process. The third group is a neutral group. They are not harmful, but not necessarily helpful either.

The complication lies in who falls into which categories. It is a pleasant surprise when a casual friend turns out to be in the first group and is very sensitive and understanding, letting one go through the grieving process at one’s own sped without having to explain why they are laughing one minute and crying the next. It is a sad realization when one’s mother/sister/best friend falls into the second category. They tell one that one should ‘buck up’, ‘a lot of people go through they some thing’, or that ‘it has been ‘x’ amount of time, you should have moved by now’. Unfortunately these people now have become harmful, and distancing oneself from these people may be necessary for a healthy reconciliation.

Part of taking care of oneself is realizing whom we are surrounding ourselves with and how they are effecting us. This is true for everyone, but it is especially true for those who are working through loss and/or grief. While we cannot divorce ourselves from those who may hinder or reconciliation process, it is important to recognize that sharing with them will not result in a positive way. Therefore a more helpful and healing friend should be the ‘go to’ person for emotional support. Perhaps those who fall into our first category are the one we go to when its time to watch a movie or relax a local coffee shop.

Personally, I find support groups to be immensely helpful. When I am attending a support group I find my need to share and to be surrounded by those who understand my situation and listen non-judgmentally is fulfilled. As a result, it is not necessary to rely so heavily on my friends and family for understanding since I am receiving it through another outlet. Googling support groups in your area is a quick way to identify available resources. But be patient, not every support group will be a good match! It may take a few before the right group of people present themselves.

- Meg Long, RPCV Kenya

If you are a friend or loved one of a survivor, please consider how you may be able to better understand and better support them. Sometimes people aren't ready to talk and sometimes they want someone to gently open the door. If you are a survivor, try to find people with whom you feel comfortable. We hope to soon have resources available on this First Response Action blog to refer survivors to for more assistance. Many hospitals have support groups and also many non-profits have support programs. Here are a few links to national organizations that may be helpful:

If you found an online resource that may be helpful to survivors, please comment or email it to


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Educating Potential Volunteers on Safety Issues During Peace Corps Service

Many women who are researching Peace Corps service will face the issue of safety. Many families will be worried that their daughter, sister, wife, friend, niece, etc. may fall victim to physical or sexual violence. Personally, I told my family that “crime happens everywhere” and that I would be okay. I erroneously thought that my safety was solely in my hands. Traveling through and living in a country are two vastly different things. Crimes of opportunity and sexual assault and rape are in two separate categories. This is a big difference when it comes to a prospective Volunteer who is researching safety in Peace Corps. The norms of a given culture are also important to weigh when considering living in another country, particularly a country where Peace Corps operates.

One such potential Volunteer wrote a blog about this topic. The writer takes a “crime happens everywhere” stance and believes that an outstanding investigative series of articles written by the Dayton Daily News in 2003 purport that Peace Corps needs to serve as a baby-sitter to Volunteers. These two items need some fleshing out.

The members of the First Response Action Coalition read the blog post and we felt that a response was needed to educate possible PCVs about the landscape of physical and sexual assault in the Peace Corps. We, as RPCVs, have first-hand experience with safety in the Peace Corps, compared with someone who has not yet served in the Peace Corps. Reading articles to educate one’s self is admirable, but living something is credible.

Here is the response from FRA Coalition member Meg Long who served in Kenya. During service she created a training manual for her community, where there was no Swahili translation for the concept of ‘rape.’

There are several key points in the PC=Risky Business post which triggered a gut reaction from me, an RPCV who spent 2 ½ years in Kenya, part of which was spent writing an informational manual on domestic violence and sexual assault, then providing a training on the material. This manual was not for Peace Corps Volunteers; it was for the community in which I lived.

Why would a community need some foreigner to write something so basic you might ask yourself? The answer is simple, because in my village (like many villages in Africa and probably many communities where PCVs are stationed) rape does not exist. I don’t mean it doesn’t exist in the sense that there is always mutual respect and consent between two people before having sex. I mean that the idea of a women or girl deciding when, where or with whom she has sex is so foreign that there is not a word for it in the local language. This fact could be part of the foundation for why the blogger is confused “why not hold some of the people in the stories told accountable for not following PC recommendations for safety.” My particular training on sexual assault, in a nutshell, told us to become cultural integrated and appropriate, which would then make us safer. This begs the question: If it is culturally appropriate to have sex with a woman without her consent – and I am a woman who has complete say as to who does/doesn’t have sex with me – does that make me not culturally integrated or appropriate?

Unfortunately, the reality of being a PCV is a bit more complicated than what a future PCV can find on the internet. The constant struggle between being a good/effective volunteer and retaining the basic rights that we as Americans are so accustomed to is an integral part of being a Volunteer. That cannot be understood by someone who has not experienced it themselves. It would be impossible for Peace Corps or PCVs to bridge this cultural gap and pretend that they are in total control of the situation. It is in their ability, however, to make sure that PCVs are aware of the risk and have a solid action plan if a volunteer is sexually assaulted. It is from this standpoint that First Response Action was formed and is working toward standardized policies and procedures that ensure PCVs who survive sexual assault are treated with compassion, care and respect by trained advocates.

- Meg Long, RPCV Kenya 2003-2005, member of the First Response Action Coalition

Ultimately, while Peace Corps cannot completely control violence against Volunteers, they can most certainly control their response. First Response Action is advocating to better educate Peace Corps Trainees during in-country training and to improve their response when a Volunteer has experienced physical or sexual violence.

In regards to the tremendous series done by the Dayton Daily News, the writer of the blog questions, “But who wants to throw some positive into stories designed to sensationalize the possible downsides of service?” It is important to note that Peace Corps only shows the positive side of service in their materials. It took a newspaper such as the Dayton Daily News to do such an expose into something that the Peace Corps would rather dismiss. The Dayton Daily News is one of the few publications to print anything so bold about physical and sexual assault, death and murder in the Peace Corps. While most Volunteers may not experience such traumatic events, for those hundreds each year who do, Peace Corps needs to improve its response for those it has committed to care for.

While an average of 4% of Volunteers each year since 2004 has experienced some form of physical or sexual violence, those are only the reported cases. Peace Corps’ response to such incidences stops some others from reporting. Many women also experience sexual harassment frequently, which often goes vastly unreported as it may be so recurrent and may be perceived as seemingly harmless to some.

There are certainly many wonderful opportunities and experiences to be had during Peace Corps service, but the serious matter of Volunteer safety has to be addressed for the sake of all who serve.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

First Response Action in the Blogosphere

At any given moment there are what I like to call 'pre-PCVs,' those people who are looking into Peace Corps service or who are somewhere along the wide spectrum of the application/invitation process, who are researching Peace Corps stories. Some are searching Peace Corps + sexual assault. That's where they find us.

We - the First Response Action Coalition - are always working to engage others in the conversation of improving Peace Corps' response to sexual assault, rape, intimate partner violence, physical violence and beyond. Here are some highlights from the blogosphere so far this year:

  • National Peace Corps Association's interview with Casey Frazee, founder of First Response Action.
  • Not Another Wave (the blog that is "the feminist conversation for everyone") blogpost by Casey.
  • Cincy Chic (an online publication based in Cincinnati, OH) interview with Casey.
  • The Safer (Students Active For Ending Rape) Blog post in response to First Response Action.
  • Re-print of Casey's WorldView article on the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.

It's also encouraging to see that this important conversation is making it's way outside of the Peace Corps community to the broader awareness in America. In June, the Washington Post wrote an article about safety issues during Peace Corps Service.

If you have found a website that references First Response Action or responds to issues of physical and sexual violence in the Peace Corps, please email


Friday, August 27, 2010

First Response Action Coalition Profiles

First Response Action is operated by a coalition of six RPCVs, who all served within the last 10 years in five different countries. Those RPCVs are: Casey Frazee (First Response Action founder), Karen Moldovan, Kate Finn, Meg Long, Jess Smochek and Katie Campbell. Below are profiles of each of the Coalition members.

All of these women have rich histories in community organizing, direct service and non-profit development. Each one brings her skills to the table to work towards First Response Action's mission of advocating for a stronger Peace Corps response for Volunteers who are Survivors or victims of physical and sexual assault.

For more information or to offer your skills to the benefit of the mission, please email

  • Casey Frazee is an RPCV who served in South Africa in the Community HIV/AIDS Outreach Program. Prior to Peace Corps, Casey worked in agency public relations and then non-profit development. Currently, she is the Girls Programs Coordinator for the YWCA of Greater Cincinnati where she works with youth on programs such as pregnancy and STD prevention, financial literacy, media literacy, managing stress and substance abuse prevention. Contact:

  • Karen Moldovan is an RPCV who served in Tonga. She came to the Peace Corps with strong experience in advocacy, education, international development, public policy, and community organizing. Her professional experience has often focused on working with underserved populations, including survivors of intimate partner violence, individuals experiencing homelessness, and pregnant and parenting youth. She is currently the Program Manager at the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Contact:

  • Kate Finn is an RPCV who worked in the Children, Youth and Families project in Costa Rica. Before becoming a PCV, Kate volunteered and organized projects to support children of prisoners. Kate is currently the Program Coordinator for the national model Victim Services Network at the Denver District Attorney's Office. The Victim Services Network is a collaborative network that connects and supports agencies and communities to provide innovative, seamless and integrated services to victims of crime in Denver, CO. Contact:

  • Meg Long is an RPCV who served in Kenya as a Public Health Volunteer. During her service, Meg wrote and provided a training on a Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault information manual. While completing her Master’s in Public Health, Meg worked as a Call Responder on a Crisis Assistance Listening Line. She currently works for the Ronald McDonald House Charities in Portland, OR as the Assistant House and Volunteer Manager. Contact:

  • Jessica Smochek is an RPCV who served in Bangladesh in the Teaching English as a Second Language program where she taught at an all-girls middle school. After the Peace Corps, Jessica obtained her Master’s in International Health and worked in the data management sector of drug development (oncology studies). She is currently in Washington, DC pursuing her Master’s in Counseling. Contact:

  • Katie Campbell is an RPCV who served in Tonga where she was a Community Educator. She currently resides in D.C. where she is a Public Policy Associate at the World Food Program USA. She is pursuing her Master’s in Public Health at The George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs. Contact: