April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. First Response Action was founded to support Peace Corps Volunteers who are survivors of sexual and physical assault through advocacy and reform to Peace Corps policies and procedures. This month we would like to acknowledge and celebrate the steps forward that Peace Corps has recently taken to address the critical issues of training, prevention and response in the area of sexual and physical assault.
This year, Peace Corps released a document entitled “Commitment to Sexual Assault Victims” which gives a general outline of Peace Corps’ response to victims of sexual assault. This commitment includes seven key areas: compassion, safety, support, legal options, open communication, continuation of service and privacy. While the document is uses broad language and is not specific, this commitment is a step in the right direction. This Commitment is to be included in all Volunteer Handbooks and will be mailed to Invitees as well. Peace Corps states that the Commitment will be widely distributed within Peace Corps so that Volunteers at all stages (Invitees to Trainees to sworn-in Volunteers) know Peace Corps commitment to them. First Response Action celebrates this Commitment. We look forward to working with Peace Corps to ensure that the commitments that they make are enacted in specific services for victims of crime.
Peace Corps is increasing the amount of information that goes public about their safety and support protocols. In February, Peace Corps released a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) document to provide more information about how they have updated their safety planning and are better equipped to respond to incidents of rape and sexual assault.
Peace Corps improved the Family & Friends section of their website to inform loved ones about Peace Corps’ response to the issue of sexual assault. The site now has several paragraphs dedicated to this issue which outline their response and commitment to training. Having contact information for Peace Corps D.C. that family and friends could contact if their loved one has experienced trauma would further improve this re-vamped section.
Worldwide Staff Training
Peace Corps is in the process of rolling out a revised global training curriculum for in-country staff. Director of Safety and Security Ed Hobson said that once the training is rolled out and the first phase is complete, Peace Corps will continue into the next phase of the program which includes Volunteer training and evaluation. In a recent conference call with Peace Corps safety and security staff, they reported that only one country is left to complete their staff training. Considering we are only in the beginning of the second quarter of 2011, this is a giant step for staff education on sexual violence! We look forward to receiving information from the training evaluations and to hear how Peace Corps staff have adjusted the way they respond to victims of crime.
Sexual Assault Working Group
In the fall of 2010, Peace Corps Director Williams initiated a working group of Peace Corps staff members to address the issue of rape and physical and sexual assault against Volunteers. According to Peace Corps’ fact sheet, the group’s goal is “to analyze current agency protocols and recommend strategies to reduce the incidence of sexual assault and rape, and to strengthen support for victims.” Director Williams has been a great advocate for the issue of sexual assault perpetrated against Peace Corps Volunteers. The creation of this internal committee shows Peace Corps’ commitment to properly addressing this issue. The committee has staff who are Returned Volunteers, staff who have experience in the fields of social work, psychology, crime scene investigation and public health. First Response Action also looks forward to the possibility that Peace Corps may open up this working group to include external experts in the field.
Earlier this year, Peace Corps posted a position for a Victim Advocate to be based in D.C. and respond to victims of crime. First Response Action outlined the importance of globally-placed regional Victim Advocates in our meeting with Peace Corps in December 2010. Victim Advocates (VA) are a best practices model where the Volunteer has one main point of contact and the VA manages connections to care and resources for the Volunteer. In a recent conference call with Peace Corps staff, they reported that the Victim Advocate should be joining Peace Corps soon and that there is already quite a long list of to-do’s when this person starts. First Response Action is thrilled to work with the Victim Advocate once they get started and feel comfortable in their position.
The Way Forward
First Response Action is enthused that Peace Corps has taken these steps to improve Volunteer safety. First Response Action acknowledges that not all incidents of rape and sexual assault can be prevented, but all can be responded to appropriately and improvements can be made to training to better educate Volunteers on the issue. These are the critical first steps that are necessary to improve training and response. First Response Action advocates for legislation to be added to the Peace Corps Act so that these changes are cemented in the Peace Corps structure to protect and care for all Volunteers. Volunteers must be trained appropriately, be guaranteed certain rights if they become victims of crime, and receive the appropriate support following incidents of rape and sexual and physical assault.