Thursday, April 28, 2011 Article: Returned Volunteers Group Calls on Peace Corps to Fix Lacking Rape Response

Returned Volunteers Group Calls on Peace Corps to Fix Lacking Rape Response
by Alex DiBranco · April 28, 2011

Casey Frazee arrived in South Africa in 2009 as an eager young Peace Corps Volunteer, honored to be a part of an organization known for doing good around the world.

But after her sexual assault, Casey discovered a glaring flaw in the organization she idealized: a complete lack of support and victim-blaming response to rape. It was all the more shocking, Casey recalled in an interview with, because “in my mind I held them to this really high standard.” Within a month of her early return home, Casey founded First Response Action (FRA), a Returned Volunteers group devoted to improving the Peace Corps’ response to sexual violence. And she quickly discovered that her situation was far from an anomaly -- despite what Peace Corps staff insisted.

Survivors hailed from missions all over the world, yet each one shared a similar story of being denied support and questioned about what they did to get themselves raped. Earlier this month, the Congressional Victims Rights' Caucus honored one such Returned Volunteer, Jess Smocheck, for speaking out on 20/20 about being gang-raped in Bangladesh -- after begging the Peace Corps to relocate her. "They all took turns raping me," she told ABC News. "They raped me with their bodies. They raped me with foreign objects." Smocheck says that staff demonstrated greater concern for Peace Corps' image and relationship with Bangledeshi officials than her well-being, covering up the assault and telling her to pretend she was leaving the country to get wisdom teeth pulled.

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"I am so thankful and I'm so appreciative of all the Volunteer survivors who have come forward," Casey told It wasn't until these survivors spoke up and captured media attention that the Peace Corps began to take their sexual violence problem seriously. The Peace Corps' own statistics reveal that there were over 1000 reported sexual assaults from 2000-2009, over 200 of which were rapes or attempted rapes.

Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams has since met with FRA and made some changes to the deficient sexual assault response, but Casey remains far from satisfied. “The new training is risk reduction, which is essentially victim-blaming,” she complains.

And there's another major problem: this has all been done at least once before. In the 1980s, with the support of the Reagan administration, Casey told that another Returned Volunteer survivor fought to change sexual violence policy at the Peace Corps -- but because staff can only serve a maximum five years, as the people involved in the improvements left, the situation regressed. "It gave her solace that she went through what she went through so other women wouldn't have to ... to find out otherwise is heartbreaking," Casey says.

That’s why FRA has drafted Congressional legislation, with support from House Victims' Rights Caucus Co-Chair Ted Poe, to codify necessary and lasting sexual assault polices at the Peace Corps -- so all their hard work won't go to waste. With a hearing planned on the bill for May 11 (to be officially confirmed next week), where a survivors panel and the mother of a returned volunteer will speak, Casey and the other Returned Volunteers of First Response Action are calling on the Peace Corps to back behind a permanent anti-sexual violence policy. If the testimony of the Peace Corps, which would follow that of the survivors, favors this legislation, Congress will have a much easier road to protecting and aiding Volunteers.

“Peace Corps thinks that they’re doing everything they need to do,” Casey commented on their resistance to legislating improvement. But she and other survivors know they're wrong. If Director Williams, of whom Casey currently has positive things to say, and all those involved with the Peace Corps want effective changes that won't disappear when his five years are up, this proposed bill is vital.

Despite her treatment as a survivor, Casey makes it clear that she still loves and supports the Peace Corps' mission, which is why she cares so much about making the organization a better place for Volunteers. Join Casey and First Response action in calling upon the Peace Corps and your representatives in Congress to get this legislation passed immediately.

Alex DiBranco is a Editor who has worked for the Nation, Political Research Associates, and the Center for American Progress. She is now based in New York City.

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