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

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