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.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Steps Peace Corps Has Taken to Improve Support to Victims of Crime

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.

Victim Advocate

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.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The University of Michigan's The Michigan Review article on Sexual Assault in Peace Corps

Peace Corps Under Fire by Eden Stiffman on April 8, 2011

Amid the celebrations of 50 years of international service, the Peace Corps has been in the spotlight for a far less laudatory record.

Following an ABC News “20/20” report in January, in which volunteers who survived rape or sexual assault while serving in the Peace Corps expressed dissatisfaction over the support they received, the agency has been under fire.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing, likely in May, to examine the Peace Corps’ treatment of volunteers who have been victims of rape or sexual assault while serving abroad.

The issue caught the attention of Representative Ted Poe (R-Texas), founder and co-chair of the bipartisan Victims’ Rights Caucus who, citing the report, first spoke on the House floor about the issue in late January.

In an interview with THE MICHIGAN REVIEW, Poe said he hopes to “find out what has happened to victims of crime, why crimes are committed against them, and what the response has been from our federal government, if any.”

In the last decade, over 1000 female volunteers have been victims of rape or sexual assault, including 221 rapes or attempted rapes, 147 major sexual attacks, and 719 other sexual assaults, according to Peace Corps’ Annual Reports of Volunteer Safety.

Casey Frazee, a graduate of Eastern Michigan University, is one of these assault survivors. In 2009, Frazee was placed in South Africa where she volunteered at an HIV/AIDS clinic. Soon after arriving, she was assaulted by the brother of her host mother, a man who was also dating one of her co-workers at the clinic.

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*Editor's Note: While campaigning for President of the United States in 1960, John F Kennedy made an early morning stop at the University of Michigan student union where he essentially announced the idea for Peace Corps. More at:

Saturday, April 9, 2011

ABC News Report: Jess Smochek Honored By Congress: Peace Corps Volunteer Spoke Out About Assaults In '20/20' Investigation

A Peace Corps volunteer who spoke out on "20/20" about being gang raped while serving in Bangladesh was honored by Congress Wednesday for her work on behalf of victims.

Jess Smochek of Pennsylvania, 29, received the 2011 Suzanne McDaniel Public Awareness Award from the bipartisan Congressional Victims' Rights Caucus at a Capitol Hill ceremony attended by members of Congress and victims advocates. After she was attacked, Smochek helped raise awareness of sexual assaults on Peace Corps volunteers and what she and other advocates consider the Corps' lack of support for victims.

"Thanks to the courage and determination of Jessica Smochek," said Rep. Ted Poe, R.-Texas, co-chair of the Caucus, "the mistreatment of victims of violence and the inadequate response from the Peace Corps has captured the attention of the nation" Rep. Poe, who hosted Wednesday's event along with Caucus co-chair Rep. Jim Costa, D.-California, called Smochek's advocacy on behalf of victims "inspiring" and said that because of her Congress will have hearings next month "to hold the Peace Corps accountable" for the safety of volunteers.

Rep. Matsui (D-CA), Rep. Poe (R-TX), Jess Smochek, Rep. Costa (D-CA)

Smochek told ABC News it was "incredibly humbling" to be recognized by the Victims' Rights Caucus. "They are my heroes, both for the work they've done for so many vulnerable populations and for the work I believe some of them are doing even now to help make sure my story won't have to be retold by future Peace Corps Volunteers."

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Peace Corps Partners with RAINN, Nation’s Largest Anti-Sexual Violence Organization

WASHINGTON, D.C., March 23, 2011—The Peace Corps and the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to collaborate and share educational resources and training tools on sexual assault prevention and response. Through the partnership, RAINN will provide Peace Corps with expertise on Peace Corps’ sexual assault prevention and response training for Peace Corps volunteers and staff.

“The Peace Corps is committed to providing the best, most compassionate support to volunteers in the field. This agreement allows Peace Corps to access RAINN’s resources to implement a stronger, more comprehensive training model for Peace Corps volunteers serving around the world,” said Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams.

RAINN will provide Peace Corps with guidance on the development of an enhanced sexual assault prevention and response program. In return, Peace Corps will share information with RAINN on cross-cultural issues of sexual assault risk reduction and response in other countries. Currently, Peace Corps volunteers serve in 77 countries around the world.

For more information about Peace Corps’ commitment to the victims of sexual assault and rape go to the Safety Section of the agency’s website.

About RAINN: RAINN is the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization, providing a leadership role in response, support, education and advocacy to prevent sexual violence and improve services to victims. RAINN operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1.800.656.HOPE and the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline at, and publicizes the hotlines' free, confidential services; educates the public about sexual violence; and leads national efforts to prevent sexual violence, improve services to victims and ensure that rapists are brought to justice.