A misleading and downright irresponsible article posted on November 30th by CBS News concerning Peace Corps’ response to sexual assaults requires my response. You can read that article here. The author lumps together three very different issues: the question of in-country staff misconduct against host country nationals and a narrative of the termination of a victims’ advocate are sprinkled with tales of horror from PCVs who were assaulted in an attempt to reduce Peace Corps to just as hapless as it is villainous when it comes to dealing with sexual assault.
I have absolutely no comment on or knowledge of staff misconduct and how it is handled. But I do have a lot to say about Peace Corps’ care for victims of sexual assault.
About a year ago, and seven months into my service, I was raped while on vacation. I followed the procedures Peace Corps laid out for me: I got myself to safety. I called my Peace Corps Medical Officer on a Friday. That Monday, I was on a plane to Washington, DC for six weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy and medical care provided by headquarters. I had three weekly, one-hour appointments with a Peace Corps psychologist to combat PTSD with the aim of getting me back to site.
Much of my praise for Peace Corps falls on the staff who helped me, both in-country and at headquarters. My country director invited me to stay in her home instead of in a hotel while my flight was being arranged. My PCMO drove me herself to the country director’s house. My safety and security manager came in on her day off only to give me a hug. When I requested additional appointments at the end of the initial ten, my psychologist scheduled them without hesitation. When I was losing sleep over the possibility of being HIV positive, my international health coordinator accompanied me herself to have an additional blood test done. That same woman took me out to lunch when she happened to be in Indonesia on Peace Corps business six months later.
The mechanisms and procedures Peace Corps has established are meaningless without the efforts of the staff they hire. In my experience, every single person in the medical unit was kind, respectful, and helpful.
What is left unsaid in this CBS article is what is most dangerous. To someone unfamiliar with Peace Corps, it looks as if Peace Corps puts volunteers at great risk of sexual assault and then punishes them for reporting–indeed, the article is titled “Peace Corps volunteers blamed, punished for reporting sexual assaults?” I cannot stress enough how categorically false this is–however, I only speak as a post-reform victim. Any PCVs who were assaulted before 2013 will have had an entirely different experience. I can only speak to Peace Corps’s response as it is now.
Roughly one in five [Peace Corps Volunteers] is sexually assaulted during that service, according to the results of a recent anonymous Peace Corps safety questionnaire, obtained exclusively by CBS News.
The report also shows that nearly half don’t report the assaults.
While the author of the article insinuates that this is somehow a failing of Peace Corps, these statistics are consistent with sexual assault statistics across the board. More than one in five college students are sexually assaulted during their time at university and under-reporting is a constant struggle for victims’ advocates.
Hessler-Radelet also added 96 percent of volunteers questioned for a sexual assault response quality assurance survey indicated they are “satisfied with their services.”
That anonymous survey was sent to 183 people. Just 52 responded.
As far as that anonymous survey goes, I filled it out myself. It was long and, as you can imagine, not very fun. To have experienced a trauma and afterwards evaluate two months of the hardest time of your life in a 40-question survey? I wouldn’t blame anyone for not starting or finishing it. That’s no indication of a failing of Peace Corps, but rather a tendency (and right) of victims.
More than 500 volunteers have reported experiencing a sexual assault in a little over two years. CBS News spoke with nearly a dozen who questioned how their recent cases were handled. They told us they felt criticized and were threatened they would be fired.
Since CBS has so succinctly summarized a handful of opinions instead of quoting here, I have to ask how many of these victims said they didn’t report because they were afraid of being removed from site for legitimate safety and security concerns? The safety of volunteers is Peace Corps’ top priority and anecdotally, volunteers don’t take their own safety as seriously as Peace Corps does. I know I would have been gutted if I hadn’t been able to return to the home I have here in Indonesia after being raped; it would have felt like a punishment on top of the sexual assault. But it’s not a punishment, it’s a precaution. Being sexually assaulted is horrible and to have something you’ve worked so hard for taken from you as a result of that shatters you; however, if your safety cannot be guaranteed at your site, that’s what has to happen. Which leads me to my biggest complaint:
In April, two men with machetes forced the 23-year-old off the village’s main road. Smith got away and reported the assault to the Peace Corps and within a week, the agency told her she was going home.
The insinuation by the author of this article that Peace Corps retaliated against this volunteer for reporting her assault is absurd. I have no doubt they sent her home, but they did so because there were men with machetes threatening her at her site. To Peace Corps, volunteers’ safety is paramount. I’ve seen PCVs’ sites moved for less. I was fortunate in some ways in that my assault happened far from my village, indeed outside of Indonesia, but this is not the case for all PCVs; I met and spoke to many who were unable to return to their sites because of safety and security concerns which was absolutely heartbreaking. It’s not fair. Peace Corps is rarely able to relocate volunteers to finish their contracts because of the extensive site development and agreements with host countries, so for most it means the end of their service–and of course most people don’t want to merely finish, they want to continue to serve the communities they’ve grown to love. The idea that in the depths of Peace Corps Headquarters, Director Carrie Hesseler-Radelet is twirling her mustachios while denying volunteers who have been assaulted a chance to serve would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous–and insulting.
There are important questions this article could have asked instead of trying to demonize everything about Peace Corps. This is simply bad journalism.
I’m sure this is all very shocking to some of you reading. I lied to you about a mysterious stomach illness and for that I do not apologize. I’ve been quite tight-lipped about being raped except with people I saw in DC and the volunteers here in Indonesia–indeed, I led a presentation during pre-service training in April about sexual assault reporting in front of sixty-five trainees I’d never met before, only a month after returning from DC.
Let me be clear: I was not raped because I was serving in the Peace Corps. I was not raped because I was on vacation. I was not raped because I travel. I was raped because that is the plight of women in the world today. This could have happened to anyone, anywhere and was in no way a consequence of my Peace Corps service. It was the consequence of being a woman living in 2015.
This has been an incredibly difficult year for me and by writing this I in no way suggest I am perfectly recovered. I have occasional flashbacks. I have frequent bouts of problematic thinking that I actively combat. I am not the first nor the last Peace Corps Volunteer to be sexually assaulted during service but now, almost a full year later, I am truly doing well. I only returned to site thanks to my wonderful, supportive friends and allies and also thanks to Peace Corps’ HQ and specifically Peace Corps Indonesia’s superb care. Not every volunteer in my circumstances has the same experience with Peace Corps, but this is mine.