Sunday, April 25, 2010

"Solidarity Not Sympathy"

Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, graduate student and all-around spectacular person AJ Kumar wrote an article for the site go.girl.magazine in acknowledgement of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. In this article, he mentions First Response Action as a way for people to engage in stemming the tide of sexual assault and rape by bringing solidarity and not just sympathy to the situation. A selection of AJ's article is below. You can find his whole piece here.

Given that April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I’m dedicating this month’s column to highlighting a few movements that address support for victims of sexual assault and ways for men to be a bigger part of the solution.

First Response Action

There are many ways to stand in solidarity against sexual violence. Perhaps one of the most important ways is to advocate for victims and provide them with the needed support and services. In the Peace Corps, the way each post responds to sexual assault and rape is not always uniform. To be clear, they are not ignoring the problem and do have some systems in place.

For example, in South Africa, the medical unit made it a point to talk about the need to get in touch with them immediately if one was ever raped so that they could get the victim on PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis), in order to minimize the risk of transmission of HIV. If taken within 72 hours, PEP can drastically reduce the chances of transmission and its something that more people should be aware of, even outside of SA.

Much of the support needed after an incident of rape or sexual assault though, is not related to bio-medicine, but rather to mental health. On this front, there are many ways that the situation could be improved in the Peace Corps and elsewhere.

During the two years I served in South Africa, there were multiple rapes of female PCVs and there were multiple incidences of sexual assault. Our post and our fellow PCVs responded to these in a sometimes haphazard way. Sometimes facts were distorted. Sometimes victims were blamed. Neither of these are acceptable. I think much of this was due to both our post and our PCVs not taking enough time to prepare a response to sexual assault and rape. Fortunately though, out of this chaos has emerged a movement within the Peace Corps community to do better.

First Response Action is an advocacy group headed by Casey Frazee, a fellow South Africa PCV, who was a victim both of sexual assault and of poor support from the post after the incident. Casey is trying to get the Peace Corps to adopt a 7 Point Plan to provide a more uniform and supportive response to the realities of sexual violence against volunteers. It is a cause not just for victims, but for all fellow volunteers, and friends and families of volunteers to stand together with those that have been victims of sexual violence.

To get the ear of a big government organization like the Peace Corps, we need all the support we can get. Please visit to find out more about the campaign and see how you can help. Of course, this response may be specific to Peace Corps, but the problem is not. It’s worthwhile looking into whatever organization you work for or travel with to see if they have a well thought out strategy to respond to incidents of sexual violence.

AJ Kumar, RPCV South Africa

In a recent post, here, I shared that the Peace Corps representatives I spoke with in March said that they are supportive of change. In fact, they already have momentum in the direction of a Survivor Bill of Rights being included in the Volunteer Handbook. Several of the other items on the 7-Point Plan are yet to be determined, but the First Response Action Coalition remains vigilant of progress, ultimately keeping survivors and current volunteers as the highest priority.


Monday, April 19, 2010

Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Karen Moldovan, Advocacy Coordinator for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, is one of the stellar recent additions to the First Response Action Coalition team. She is an RPCV who served in the Kingdom of Tonga.

Karen is incredibly passionate about issues surrounding sexual assault and she has been instrumental and bringing First Response Action to the next level. She coordinated efforts that led to First Response Action's endorsement by state and national organizations that work with issues surrounding sexual assault.

Karen has strong experience working with advocacy, education, international development, public policy and community organizing. In recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, she has written a piece for the blog.

April is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month and provides an opportunity to highlight year-round efforts to aid those affected by sexual violence and work to prevent future sexual assaults. In President Obama’s 2010 Sexual Assault Awareness Month Proclamation, he states, “During National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we recommit ourselves not only to lifting the veil of secrecy and shame surrounding sexual violence, but also to raising awareness, expanding support for victims, and strengthening our response.” His statement clearly resonates with the mission of First Response Action.

According to researchers in this field, disastrous response (disbelief, failure of support, lack of protection for the victim, protection of the offender) is a factor that
correlates with primary severe trauma in victims (Hindman 1990 & 1999). As this research shows, the importance of first response cannot be underestimated. Members of the First Response Action Coalition are enthusiastic about the dialogue with Peace Corps staff. We recognize this dialogue as a first step to strengthening and improving critical support systems for Peace Corps Volunteers.

This work is incredibly vital. Of all human experiences of trauma, sexual trauma is second in severity only to those who have experienced active combat (Wilson, Smith & Johnson in Figley, 1985). According to a 2007 World Health Organization report, 64% of Americans believe that a woman’s appearance provokes rape. 60% believe that women who go out alone are putting themselves at greater risk of rape (Ward, 1995). Communities across the world are challenging thesedamaging rape myths by organizing “Take Back the Night” rallies, Denim Day protests, Vagina Monologues performances, and other consciousness raising activities. “Men Can Stop Rape” is organizing community speak-outs, trainings, discussions, and film screenings across the nation.

If you are currently a PCV, know that the anti-rape movement is an INTERNATIONAL movement. We would love to hear what you are doing to honor Sexual Assault Awareness Month during your Peace Corps service! If you are a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer or supporter, take the time to find out what your local rape crisis center or state coalition is organizing in your community.

Karen Moldovan, RPCV Tonga

Advocacy Coordinator

Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault

For more information about Sexual Assault Awareness Month or to find events in your area, visit


Thursday, April 15, 2010

Peace Corps is Supportive of Change

Several weeks ago, I had a conference call with two Peace Corps staff members, one from the Office of Safety & Security (S&S) and the other from the Office of Medical Services (OMS). Both of them told me that the letter I wrote to Director Aaron Williams, regarding the need for increased support of survivors of sexual and other physical crimes, was taken very seriously and given priority to follow-up.

Here are some highlights from the call:
  • Peace Corps is working on a Rape Response Handbook for use in-country. This would outline procedure and protocol for PC staff and should be available by July. From what I understood on the call, this would only be available on the PC Intranet - not available for PCV viewing - though parts of this handbook would be accessible to PCVs.
  • A Survivor Bill of Rights is to be included in the next version of the Volunteer Handbook, supposedly due out this year. This is Item One on the 7-Point Plan and apparently PC has had this in the works for quite awhile. This was incredibly heartening to learn.
  • PC is working with the advocacy group SOAR - Speaking Out About Rape and as the representative from S&S said "many of the groups listed on the First Response Action blog." It is uplifting to hear that PC is taking notes from state and national organizations that work closely with issues of rape and sexual assault to guide their procedure.
  • S&S' relatively new (2008) director is more survivor-centered than past directors and is focusing on prevention as well as supporting PCVs after incidents.
  • There are plans in the works to re-create the training video which so many PCVs/RPCVs find offensive and victim-blaming. Te three survivors featured in the training video had consumed alcohol when their incidents happened, which naturally draws the conclusion (for many who view the video) that PC is blaming the victims for the attacks they suffered.
  • PC is going to look into beefing up online resources and links for family and friends of PCV survivors. This was one of the items in the 7-Point Plan.
  • Informed Consent for survivors who are determining whether or not to press charges was discussed. It appears that PC's track record for dealing with legal issues around the world is very good. However, if not all volunteers are receiving enough appropriate information with which to make an informed decision, then this is a major gap in the system.

Overall, the staff I spoke with were very affirmative of the 7-Point Plan and implementing systems to better support volunteers. So much of this boils down to staff in-country at the time of an incident. Staff turnover is frequent, by design, and this causes many issues with historical knowledge and uniformity in dealing with issues.

It is heartening to hear that PC has so many items already in the works to better support PCVs who are survivors of sexual and physical abuse. I only hope the new items can get rolled-out quickly for the benefit of currently-serving and incoming PCVs.


Editor's Note 4/18/10: While the initial conversation with Peace Corps medical and security staff went well, it is understood that nothing new is in place yet. At this very moment, the same system is at work, which means that PCVs are still susceptible to the complications from "business as usual." That is why the First Response Action Coalition will be continuing to follow-up and make sure that PCVs are supported and that the necessary change happens. Having plans and implementing plans are certainly two different stories.

While I understand the skepticism from the comments and others who have emailed, I think if Peace Corps is saying that they also recognize a change has to be made, then we should believe them. We will just be more vigilant to make sure Peace Corps follows through. Thank you again for your comments and emails. I always welcome comments, stories and perspectives on rape and sexual assault in Peace Corps. You can email me at