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