Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Press Conference: Introducing the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Safety and Security Act

The press conference to announce the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Safety and Security Act legislation will be on Thursday, June 23 at 2:15 p.m. in the Capitol on the Senate side in the Senate TV/Radio Gallery, room S-325.

The press conference may be televised. Please check back as it gets closer to the press conference as we may have information about which channel.

Legislation to be Introduced: The Kate Puzey Peace Corps Safety and Security Act

Tomorrow, June 23, Congressman Ted Poe (R-TX) and Senator Isakson (R-GA) will be introducing the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Safety and Security Act. First Response Action supports this legislation as does Kate’s Voice, the organization created by Kate Puzey’s family following her 2009 murder in Benin, West Africa, related to a confidentiality breach. Kate was a strong advocate for women during her lifetime, including forming girls clubs in her village in Benin, so it is apt that this legislation is named in her memory.

Congressman Poe and Senator Isakson and their staff have worked tirelessly to forward the critical points that we know are necessary to provide improved training to Volunteers and Peace Corps staff, and to improve Peace Corps response to victims of crime. Both offices worked closely with Peace Corps as well as Kate's Voice and First Response Action to build legislation that best supports Volunteers. Peace Corps has verbally expressed their support for the legislation and a press release is anticipated following the introduction of the legislation.

Below are the highlights of the bill. We will link to the legislation as soon as it is introduced and available.

  • Best practices training. The bill installs training that conforms to best practices in the field. The bill requires that Peace Corps work with experts in the fields of sexual assault prevention in order to craft and deliver trainings, both to Volunteers and to Peace Corps staff. By consulting with experts, Peace Corps is able to more effectively deliver a message that encourages reporting and supports survivors. Training can also ensure that Peace Corps staff is ready and able to act after the report of a crime. As RPCVs, the First Response Action board understands the reality of service in the field. Crime cannot always be prevented and risk cannot be eliminated. Implementing a training curriculum that engages bystanders in the efforts to prevent sexual violence while correctly placing the responsibility for the crime solely on the perpetrator is imperative to creating a meaningful response. Relaying important messages about crime and Peace Corps response to Volunteers will help them to adjust to their new reality when they are in their sites. Many Volunteers work with host-country community partners to provide education about sexual assault and gender-based violence and, by installing innovative training for Volunteers, this is one way Peace Corps can be a leader in relaying empowering messages to men and women worldwide.
  • Victim Advocates. The bill mandates that Peace Corps hire four victim advocates. Three of these victim advocates will be assigned to a specific region. Each advocate will be responsible for coordinating access to services for survivors to critical services such as: safety planning, forensic exams, Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) for HIV exposure, STD screening and information on that specific country’s legal process. Once the survivor returns home, the DC-based advocate will assist them with filing a claim and will continue to assist them for the life of the claim as it moves through the Department of Labor. These advocates are essential to the coordinated and compassionate response that will ensure a survivor’s best opportunity at long term healing. While we recognize that four advocates cannot adequately address the number of Volunteers who report a crime, we do think that this is an important start. The advocates can strongly inform Peace Corps to create survivor-centered policies.
  • Strong confidentiality provisions. Not only are confidentiality provisions considered a best-practice in the field, they are necessary to ensure that each Volunteer feels safe and supported enough to report their crime. Unfortunately, Kate Puzey could have been protected had such measures been installed, which is why the bill extends to whistle-blower protections as well. Installing these measures will, in time, create a culture that supports reporting and through this bill Peace Corps will have a system that is able to respond appropriately. Additionally, First Response Action is pleased that the legislation includes alternative systems for reporting. Such mechanisms have been instituted by the Department of Defense and have proven to be incredibly effective in providing support services for victims who wish to remain anonymous. Fear of losing confidentiality is often identified as a primary concern of victims of sexual assault.
  • Sexual Assault Advisory Council. The bill establishes a Sexual Assault Advisory Council, which will play a pivotal role in ensuring that all policies, procedures and training curricula are in alignment with best-practices in the fields of sexual assault prevention and international victims’ response. Once implemented, the Council will assist in establishing a strong victim service program. Once this Advisory Council is enacted, First Response Action board member Karen Moldovan will serve as the First Response Action Representative and the Liaison between First Response Action and the Council.

We are glad to take this opportunity to support Peace Corps response to victims and those who report or experience crime and harassment. As each of these provisions is integrated into the Volunteer experience, we estimate that more reports of crime will be made. In our discussions with Peace Corps, they also realize that improved training and response is likely to increase the number of incidents reported. Volunteers will have access to critical services and be able to feel supported during their time of service. This will be an indicator of a culture that supports and empowers survivors.

First Response Action looks forward to seeing this important bill move forward in the legislative process. If you would like to contact your Representative to forward this bill, please visit the Take Action tab on our site for more information.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Office of the Inspector General Request to Survivors

First Response Action has received the following request from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for Peace Corps. If you are a survivor of sexual or physical violence while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer, please contact the OIG at to share your experience.

The Peace Corps Office of Inspector General (OIG) is conducting a review of the agency's guidelines and protocols related to its response to the rape and sexual assault of a Volunteer. Individuals who would like to provide the OIG with any information relative to the crime of rape or sexual assault during Volunteer service and the agency's response and support to survivors may contact the OIG by email ( ), or by mail at: Peace Corps, Attn: Inspector General, P.O. Box 57129, Washington DC 20037-7129. All information or complaints will be treated confidentially unless OIG determines during the course of an investigation of criminal, civil, and administrative misconduct that disclosure is unavoidable.

There is no limitation on the terms of service for the OIG's investigation. You could have served anywhere from 1961 to today. Feel free to email First Response Action if you have questions:


Casey Frazee, Founder

First Response Action

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Peace Corps Strengthens Relationship with First Response Action

When First Response Action members met with Peace Corps staff in D.C. on May 9th, they informed us that they have created a Peace Corps’ Volunteer Sexual Assault Panel, currently managed by the Senior Advisor to the newly-created Peace Corps Sexual Assault Working Group.

The purpose of the panel is to...

...obtain the advice of outside experts and returned Peace Corps Volunteers on the design and implementation of Peace Corps’ global sexual assault risk reduction and response strategies.

This panel sounds familiar to a group that First Response Action has been advocating for to oversee the issue of sexual violence in Peace Corps, although the scope of the group's purpose varies slightly.

First Response Action advocates for Peace Corps to have an advisory council that is overseen by Congress which would be comprised of Volunteers who were victimized during their service, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers with expertise in sexual assault services and other experts in the field. It is First Response Action's position that Sexual Assault Advisory Council members should not be paid Peace Corps staff, although the Council will certainly work in collaboration with staff. First Response Action recommends that the Sexual Assault Advisory Council convene quarterly or twice yearly. The Sexual Assault Advisory Council should utilize the experiences and skills of members by reviewing all protocol, policy, training and services related to sexual assault, stalking and intimate partner violence. The Council will also be able to make recommendations based on innovations in the field as well as how previous cases were handled.

We are pleased to announce that Peace Corps has invited a member of First Response Action to join the panel! First Response Action member and Program Manager at the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Karen Moldovan, has been appointed by the First Response Action board to serve as our representative. The panel has yet to convene, but First Response Action is thankful for the opportunity to continue working together with Peace Corps for policies and procedures that benefit and support victims of sexual and physical violence.

Karen met with members of the Sexual Assault Working Group, including Kellie Green the new Victim Advocate for Peace Corps, while attending the SANE-SART conference in May in Austin, TX to discuss the partnership. Other Peace Corps staff at the conference included medical services staff member Kim Skrtic and security staff member David Fleisig.

First Response Action is pleased to continue this positive working relationship with Peace Corps towards constructive change!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Becoming Educated About the Issue of Sexual Violence

Over the last several months, with increasing awareness and particularly media attention to the issue of sexual violence against Peace Corps Volunteers, it has become clear that there is a need for education about this issue for those inside and outside the Peace Corps community.

Today, the Kojo Nnamdi show, a well-respected radio show on the DC NPR affiliate WAMU, interviewed Peace Corps Director Williams about The Peace Corps at 50. Part of the show discussed sexual violence against Volunteers and Jess Smochek, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who testified at the May 10th Congressional hearing, spoke about this issue on air. This is clearly an issue where many people are passionate.

There are many opinionated comments left on blogs and websites regarding this issue. One example of the need for education includes the following comment left on the Kojo Nnamdi show website:
"'s partially the responsibility of the volunteer to educate themselves about the country they are going to serve in. Additionally, if the volunteer is uncomfortable or threatened in their site, it's also their responsibility to bring that to PC's attention in that country. "
- Comment left on the show site for the NPR WAMU Kojo Nnamdi show

As an organization, First Response Action advocates for improved response from Peace Corps in-country and in DC to support Volunteers. This comment is an example of victim blaming and removes Peace Corps' response from the equation. All responsibility is placed on the Volunteer to learn about the country, which in this context, is inferred that learning about the country will keep Volunteers safe. These two items - sexual violence and knowledge of country - do not have a direct connection to deterring sexual violence. Additionally, learning about a country or culture and living in it are two different things.

First Response Action has received numerous testimonies that state that women who reported harassment, feeling uncomfortable or threatened were ignored. Women have said that they repeatedly reported harassment, which can be a precursor to rape or sexual assault, only to have Peace Corps staff in-country tell them that it's 'no big deal' or that they're making too much of an issue or that it's just the culture. Once incidents are reported, the owness then falls to Peace Corps to respond and follow-through in an appropriate way about the reports, keeping the Volunteer's safety in mind at all times. ALL Volunteer reports need to be taken seriously and handled properly so as not to put the Volunteer at further risk while the issue is being managed and investigated.

A caller to the Kojo Nnamdi show whose son served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia in the late 90s and in Nepal in the early 2000's called to remark about what she thought about her son's experiences in Peace Corps regarding women and safety:

"I found that the American women volunteers were very naive. They've been brought up in a society where they feel safe, they think they can do anything. I think the Peace Corps needs to train these women to help understand the cultures they're in."

I want to make a point very clear: The problem of sexual assault is NOT based in women's actions. NO victim is to blame for the assaults thrust upon them. There is, however, a problem with female victims consistently being blamed for the harassment, assaults or rapes that they have been forced to endure. The myth is that women are assaulted because they wore culturally inappropriate clothing, they walked at night or they 'asked for it' by being in a big city or by drinking. The truth is that women who are assaulted in Peace Corps have been asleep, jogging, at home, working or spending time with friends. It doesn't matter what a woman is wearing. Uneducated comments purport these myths and stifle women's rights.

Sometimes victims can't say 'no.' If a victim is asleep or incapacitated, they are unable to consent for sexual activity. The absence of 'no' does not equal consent (see chart below). Perpetrators will often use fear to threaten victims into a very coercive and manipulative submission - i.e. by the perpetrator saying "don't say anything or I'll kill you." (First Response Action has received testimony from women who were told variations of this phrase during their attack.) For all victims, the lack of verbal or physical resistance because of force, threat of force or fear does not equal consent. The neurobiological response to trauma is to freeze, so many victims are unable to speak or fight off the person(s) attacking them. For more about this issue, Karen Moldovan at the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault recommends "Yes Means Yes!" Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti. Within a Peace Corps context, Volunteers serve in countries where multiple languages are spoken and understood. Depending on the situation, the attacker may not speak or understand English, adding to the complexity of sexual violence in Peace Corps.

Provided by the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault

A blog called Can You Relate? posted a cheeky but true post about 'rape prevention tips' that is definitely worth a read. The tips are aimed at the victimizers who drug and rape women. For example, one of the ten tips is "5. When you encounter a woman who is asleep, the safest course of action is to not rape her."

While this may seem shocking to some to write or read, people need to be educated about perpetrators who use this tactic. Perpetrators are looking for weakness or a vulnerability they can exploit to overtake a victim. Many victims know their attacker and attackers often groom victims to gain access. Rape is about power and control. The act of someone raping a woman in her sleep is completely exploitative and clearly a conscious decision on the behalf of the perpetrator. A female Peace Corps Volunteer could be well-traveled, well-integrated and well-informed about issues of sexual violence and be raped in her sleep. The key in the situation is Peace Corps' response.

First Response Action has heard from many women who were asleep when their attacks occurred. Some of these women were blamed or called 'difficult' Volunteers or 'risky' Volunteers. This victim-blaming culture is pervasive in the Peace Corps community and many women who were great Volunteers come back scarred by the response they received from Peace Corps following an assault. One woman who reported being constantly sexually harassed by a member of her host family, and whose reports were consistently rebuffed by in-country staff, was then raped in her sleep by the same member of her host family whom she'd been reporting to Peace Corps. I write about this situation not to shock anyone but to give an example that there is much more education needed on the part of those who think that rape and sexual assault are to be pinned on the victim without giving thought to the perpetrator who willingly overtook their victim to commit such a horrendous act.

Opinionated, victim blaming comments stem from a lack of knowledge as well as the awful rape myths that persist globally, even in American culture. I encourage you to learn more about the issue of sexual violence. Learn about perpetrators. Learn about how victims have been treated following an assault while serving as Peace Corps Volunteers. I also encourage you to start dialogue among friends or even email us at to share your thoughts and learn a little more. Visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center at to learn more. Increased education about this issue can lead to improved support for Volunteers who are victims of sexual and physical violence while in Peace Corps.

First Response Action applauds the steps that Peace Corps is taking to rectify the issue of inadequate support and their commitment to changing the culture of victim blaming. We have met with Peace Corps staff on many occasions and they keep us informed about their progress on this important issue. First Response Action is advocating for a safer, stronger, better Peace Corps. None of us are out to damage Peace Corps. We simply want better, sustainable treatment for Volunteers who become victims of crime.

Founder, First Response Action