Thursday, May 12, 2011

What happens when America's ambassadors of hope and compassion return home as victims of rape and institutional neglect?

Madagascar Peace Corps volunteers, 2006Image via Wikipedia

Last year, Peace Corps volunteer, JBrown quit after serving seven months in Guatemala.  And since this is the 21st century, he blogged about his experience. He posted then that "the Peace Corps is a wonderful organization with the capability to enact change all over the globe, but it is also severely flawed."  In this post, he wrote, "there is a dark side to the development organization with the cuddly name. [...] In the end, it's about people; Peace Corps administration interactions with Peace Corps Volunteers and Peace Corps Volunteer interactions with host communities are just two examples of important relationships that must form for a successful Peace Corps experience to ensue. When individuals are treated like numbers, problems arise. I am not just a number, which is kind of what I felt like during my time in the Peace Corps."

Yesterday, May 11, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a full hearing on Peace Corps at 50. Click on the links below to read the testimonies. Be warned -- some have graphic, disturbing contents; the most disturbing is the institution's response. As this story was reported widely yesterday, the Peace Corps said it will revamp its training videos (oh, whiskey-tango-foxtrot!). CBS News says it has learned that just four days ago a Peace Corps volunteer reported a rape in West Africa.
Panel 1: Problems of Safety and Security
Panel 2: Assessment and Reform
Panel 3: A View from the Inspector General

From Ms. Clark, a PCV told that the local men are respectful, detailed a brutal 15-hour long rape and beating:

Weeks later, I realized that I had become pregnant with the child of my rapist. I
was terrified and disgusted. I returned to Kathmandu, where I saw a nurse who
confirmed my fears. She reported the pregnancy to the Peace Corps Medical Officer, who reported it to the Country Director and to Peace Corps’ headquarters in Washington, DC. The Peace Corps’ response was that I would need to choose immediately whether to terminate my pregnancy or terminate my service with the Peace Corps.
And the problem of sexual assault against Peace Corps Volunteers hasn’t
diminished since my service. Sadly, the three most recent years for which the Peace Corps has released statistics have seen the greatest number of assaults. The women trusting their lives to the Peace Corps every year cannot wait two more decades for the Peace Corps’ sexual assault policies to organically mature. The Peace Corps needs help, guidance, and greater accountability. 

From Karestan Chase Koenen, Ph.D., who joined the Peace Corps in 1991:
Purportedly in furtherance of making the Peace Corps safer for other volunteers, I was also sent to speak with a staff member of the Inspector General’s Office. This experience was a particular low in my mind. I went to her having been told that she was trying to learn more about the negative in-country experiences of female Peace Corps Volunteers, in order to improve our situation. It was clear from the beginning of the meeting, however, that her interest was in discrediting my story. When she asked why I was there, I told her I had been raped in Niger and had been sent to talk to her. I can still clearly remember how she responded. She said: “I am so sick of you girls going over there, drinking, dancing and flirting, and then, if a guy comes on to you, you say you have been raped when you have lead them on.”
The Peace Corps’ legal “assistance” was equally disappointing. When I decided I
wanted to prosecute my perpetrator—encouraged by two other female PCV’s who had been raped and had prosecuted—my statement was given to the police in Niger who apprehended and questioned P. He was released after questioning. After this, I spoke with the American in-country Peace Corps director about my case. I said I wanted to prosecute, and he responded: “It’s your word against his. He said you wanted to have sex and we believe him.” It was at that point that I decided I needed to give up on the Peace Corps and return home to New Jersey.
From Ms. Lois Puzey, Mother of Slain Peace Corps Volunteer Kate Puzey:
The Peace Corps was extremely reluctant to give us any information about the circumstances of Kate‘s death, or to even assist us in gathering the facts ourselves. They wouldn‘t honor our request to see the initial email that had started this nightmare; we had to retrieve it ourselves. All the information we learned came from Kate‘s friends among the Volunteers and villagers, and eventually representatives from the Justice Department. Ironically, Brian Ross from ABC 20/20 received much more information from the attorney defending Constant BIO then we—the victim‘s family— did from the organization we had entrusted with our daughter‘s safety.
No Peace Corps representative ever came personally to deliver the awful news of Kate’s death, even though we live less than an hour from the Atlanta regional office.
The majority of Kate’s effects arrived unaccompanied six months after her death; they were simply dropped in our driveway by a FedEx delivery truck without any condolences from the Peace Corps.
However, we still have some unanswered questions about the circumstances surrounding Kate‘s death, and we request that the Peace Corps be completely transparent with us. Moreover, we are also painfully aware that if we hadn’t reached out to Peace Corps, and if ABC 20/20 had not investigated, they would not have reached out to us. 
Excerpt from the OIG-Peace Corps testimony:
The Peace Corps, like other international development agencies, is constantly mitigating safety and security risks. With volunteers serving in 77 countries, the agency faces a range of challenges that affect volunteer safety and security including: political unrest, natural disasters,rising crime rates, terrorism threats, and the complexity of dealing with varying legal systems in foreign jurisdictions. Unlike most other international agencies, however, the Peace Corps also faces unique safety and security challenges that result from the fact that the majority of volunteers serve at the grass roots level in rural communities, often in remote areas far from the capital city and the Peace Corps office. They live and work with people of diverse cultural backgrounds and languages. In short, the model of volunteerism that makes Peace Corps such a compelling experience for its volunteers can at the same time make the agency’s efforts to ensure their safety a challenge.

Our audit report, issued in April of 2010, focused on the management and organization of the safety and security function at Peace Corps. Consistent with past reports, we found in 2010 that volunteers overwhelmingly state being satisfied with their level of safety and security and staff support. Moreover, we found that while Peace Corps maintains a much larger safety and security workforce than comparable international non-governmental organizations, safety and security staff at all levels lacked the experience and training needed to perform their jobs.
A large broom needed over there!


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