(Please note: While my intent is to keep this blog focused on the facts, PCV stories and generally written from the third person, I am going to write this post from my own first person account as I feel it is necessary and important for this particular post.)
I am so thankful that Director Williams appears to be taking my situation - and similar situations - seriously. This is a serious matter and I look forward to working with Peace Corps to address the issues of rape and sexual assault against PCVs. Director Williams is also an RPCV and I was hoping he would be open to RPCVs coming to him with suggestions for positive change. I am elated that he responded so positively!
I feel that it is very important here to reiterate that I am a proponent of Peace Corps. Up until I was assaulted, I smiled broadly every day knowing I made the right move to do HIV/AIDS outreach work in a country with the highest AIDS rates in the world even though my family and friends said I was crazy. I felt that I was up to the challenge of the "toughest job you'll ever love." (Which is a Peace Corps' slogan.)
My mission with First Response Action is to enhance what Peace Corps already does in terms of sexual assault and rape protocols. Had my situation been handled differently and had I received the necessary care more quickly, I could very well have managed through a difficult situation and continued my service. I am hoping that with policy creation (and/or enhancement) that we can put protocols in place that will assist other PCV survivors so they can get the care and support they need and possibly continue service.
Many RPCVs will tell you that the retention rates in Peace Corps could be better - a lot better. I was told for Africa to expect that 50% of my group would dissipate by the elusive year one mark. For my training group, that's just about right. At last count, about 40-45% of my group has left our country of service - and 3 of us left due to assault. If PCV survivors were managed better across the board, then there is the possibility that they would be physically, mentally and emotionally prepared to continue service. Ultimately, retention of volunteers saves Peace Corps time, effort, materials, monetary resources not to mention that retention is also helpful to maintain good relations with the host country.
On an average annual basis between 2004-2008, roughly 4% of the Peace Corps Volunteer population is raped, sexually assaulted, kidnapped, stalked or otherwise violated. These statistics come from Peace Corps materials - the annual Safety of the Volunteer Reports posted on their website. I have not heard from every single one of the combined 20% of violated PCVs over that five year period (which amounts to nearly 1,500 volunteers, by the way) but I have spoken with several women who experienced trauma as a PCV and who were not taken care of. I am striving to help those people.
As those of us who work with organizations who work with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault will tell you, rape and sexual assault are grossly underreported. Those 1,500 are a sliver of what is really happening.
Sexual assaults are notoriously underreported. Fewer than half (48%) of all rapes and sexual assaults are reported to the police in the U.S. (Department of Justice, 2001)Within the Peace Corps community, that's no different.
These crimes are intimate violations and can be shaming or embarassing to admit. Many people keep their stories to themselves. Personally, I have actively chosen to bypass the shaming stage so I can move straight forward towards positive change. I do this so that other men and women can avoid situations like mine. That doesn't mean that I don't feel, at times, that there is some scarlet lettering on my chest, but I push through because I need to. Too many of us have been violated and sent out of our countries of service. No more.
If you are a survivor who is reading this right now - please know that you did nothing wrong. NO ONE deserves to be violated.
While there are many stories of survivors who were handled improperly, I also heard stories of survivors who were treated well, med-evac'd as needed, and were able to continue their service. I am striving to level that playing field. Why isn't everyone attended to in the same manner? I am striving to create and implement protocols that will ensure that EACH and EVERY survivor is treated in the same respectful manner. I am hoping to enhance what Peace Corps already has in place.
In upcoming blogs, we, the First Response Action Coalition, are planning to have guest bloggers discuss the ramifications of sexual assault and rape, proper protocols, the importance of not blaming the victim, etc. I also plan to post some additional survivor stories. Please keep in mind as you read this blog that while it started because of my assault, I am not alone as an RPCV victim of sexual assault.
Annually, an average of 4% of PCVs experience a violent crime, sexual abuse, stalking, kidnapping, a death threat or even death. Some people are not emotionally or mentally prepared to go public with such a personal story. I respect that immensely. As someone who has been violated, I understand that everyone approaches these issues in their own personal way. Peace Corps has these statistics and can contact each of them to see how they felt their situation was handled.
While prevention is optimal, for those survivors of sexual assault, rape and other violent crime, I am striving to work with Peace Corps to bring about protocol to better support those volunteers.
I hope that my response from Director Williams, with his request for the Office of Volunteer Support and the Office of Safety and Security to follow-up with me, will be the beginning of a collaboration to enhance the current Peace Corps model. Though my story didn't end well, I continue to support Peace Corps as an organization and I am proud to call myself a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer for the United States of America.
Peace. And Sala Sentle.