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.


  1. I agree with you, Casey, in that there can be a great amount of misinformation and misunderstanding in the area of sexual violence in other cultures.

    I served in Kenya years ago and even though the culture and legal system of the time often showed a blind eye to rape and assault, Kenyans knew what it was and kind men and women warned me of the dangers and went so far as to advise me to be careful and have a weapon by my bed. I think that Kenya overall is fairly safe, but any person living alone is at risk.

    Since then, I've traveled all over the world and I've learned to take the advice of the local women. If they say there is a danger, I listen.

    I also learned to take any weird feelings/vibes felt by myself and other women seriously and I can tell you, it saved me from being raped in one, maybe two countries. I say these things because our own American culture doesn't often value listening to our "feelings".

    Yes, I experienced a very scary close call in my country of service. Did I report it? No, even though I no longer felt safe at my school. The Peace Corps training and behavior at that time made it clear that they did not want to know because of the potential political ramifications. I also can confirm that this affected men as well as women who served.

    I am glad that there is training and support in the area of sexual violence today. It has been needed for a long time.

  2. You make a very good point that integrating into the local culture, an oft-repeated mantra, does not necessarily make you 'safe,' as we would define it in the U.S. Cross-cultural training teaches that having the love and respect of community members protects us, but that is a naive idea, not always true here in the U.S., and not other places either. Just because people are poor does not automatically make them more noble and moral.

    You can be in a community but never truly part of the local culture as a single American woman - because the concept of the single woman living away from her family is simply not seen in many parts of the world. Furthermore, the culture may not provide the respect and protection that American's are accustomed to.

    The reality is that other cultures have perspectives on sex that completely contrast with those in the U.S., and some behaviors that Americans would find abhorrent and morally shocking are tolerated and even considered normal and acceptable, in other places. This inherent risk isn't often acknowledged, for fear of casting host country culture in a negative light.

    We cannot always anticipate how people will react to us and what our hosts and neighbors will/will not do, even after a good amount of time in a country. Obviously, we would have no accidents or serious incidents if we knew that the car headed toward us wouldn't stop, that the driver of the bus we got on had been drinking, that the boys following us weren't just curious about the foreign girl, or that our landlord wanted to rape us. We can't always anticipate bad things that happen in the U.S. They are only more likely to happen in another culture, when the cues aren't as obvious to us.