"...your story covers the concerns of Peace Corps volunteers who have been raped or sexually assaulted while serving abroad. When anything happens to one of our volunteers, we do our best to offer comprehensive support through medical, counseling, and legal services. We are unwavering in our efforts to strengthen our approach to volunteer safety and security."
While that is the ideal situation that all Volunteer receive the same high level of comprehensive care, First Response Action has received numerous Volunteer reports that contradict this. We recognize that the in-country staff at the time of an incident plays a huge part in how a Volunteer situation will be managed. It is understandable that Peace Corps headquarters cannot directly manage every rape or sexual assault from D.C. This is why First Response Action advocates for in-country staff and Volunteer training in industry best practices to manage incidents of sexual assault and rape. This is also a challenging statement to read since specialized trauma counseling services were disbanded more than six years ago and there are a handful of counselors to work with hundreds of Volunteer survivors each year.
Peace Corps also stated that:
"Since August 2009, when Aaron Williams became Director of the Peace Corps, the agency has put into place measures to improve our security and support operations. The Peace Corps has developed an enhanced agencywide sexual assault prevention and response strategy. This plan is designed to expand the depth and breadth of the agency’s ability and commitment to prevent and respond to sexual assaults. Accordingly, we have undertaken a comprehensive study of best practices in the field of sexual assault prevention, met with leaders in the field of rape prevention and response, written new guidelines for responding to rapes and major sexual assaults for use by overseas staff, developed a statement of Peace Corps’ commitment to victims of sexual assault, and updated the agency’s incident reporting system."
It is important to note that many people have praised current Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams for dedicating more time to issues of sexual assault and rape. Several of the items listed in the above quote are also on First Response Action's Seven Point Plan. It is also important to note that no formal policy has existed since 2004, as a Peace Corps official told First Response Action in December 2010, and that this stated strategy has yet to be implemented worldwide. Peace Corps told First Response Action members that within the last six months they have begun to meet with industry leaders in sexual assault. It has yet to come to light what will be garnered from those meetings.
Following the Jan. 14 airing of the 20/20 special, Peace Corps responded to in a release on January 14 from Director Williams saying:
"ABC's program is deeply troubling and does not accurately reflect Peace Corps' unwavering commitment to our volunteers. The health and safety of our volunteers is the single most important priority for our agency. We are consistently reviewing and improving our global operations to ensure that we are doing our best to keep our volunteers healthy, safe and productive.
Under my leadership, the Peace Corps has been implementing reforms to enhance the quality of Peace Corps service. These reforms include strengthening all health and safety measures. We do everything we can to keep our volunteers safe, and for those who sadly fall victim to crime, we do everything we can to support them in their recovery. The women interviewed by 20/20 are courageous and strong. Their stories are heartbreaking. Since their service, Peace Corps has improved sexual assault prevention procedures and practices, and we will continue to be responsive to the victims of assault and provide comprehensive care.
We will never be able to eliminate volunteers' exposure to crimes overseas, but we will work continuously to maximize the safety and health systems supporting our volunteers. This is my pledge to Americans serving today and to the volunteers of tomorrow."
For those Volunteers who received appropriate responses post-incident, we are thrilled. That should happen every time. First Response Action advocates that all Volunteers receive the same level of care and treatment. Not all Volunteers are med-evac'd to D.C. for treatment. Not all Volunteers' first responders are competent professionals. There is a disconnect between what happens in-country and what happens in Washington, D.C. Our goal is that each and every Volunteer, regardless of the country, staff or incident, will receive the proper medical care, counseling, legal advice and anything else they need. We do not diminish those incidents that were managed properly - we would like to point them out as examples.
It is important that Director Williams has taken the issue of rape and sexual assault so seriously during his leadership. This is to be applauded. Even long-term Peace Corps staff have told us that this director over others has truly dedicated time and effort to this issue. We will be watching to see what is implemented, how it works and how that is managed. We are incredibly grateful to Director Williams that he has taken such a proactive role.
First Response Action wants to hear from Returned or current Volunteers about your experiences whether they were positive or negative. Your stories help us build the case that all Volunteers need to be treated equally. You can email firstname.lastname@example.org with your comments or story.