Recently, the popular ABC news journal 20/20 released a piece on the Peace Corps and volunteer safety, specifically focusing on the 1,000 reported sexual crimes against volunteers since 2000 – including roughly 15 or so rapes a year. The report interviews six former volunteers who were raped during their Peace Corps services, including a brutal recollection of one volunteer being gang raped an hour after reporting the same group of men for sexual assault at the local police station. The former volunteers not only talk about their experience, but also the Peace Corps response to the incidences or lackthereof. The reporter drills into the Peace Corps and the then deputy Director about their responses to the rapes and violence against volunteers.
While they say any press is good press, extreme coverage of rapes and implying that all Peace Corps volunteers are getting ‘gang raped’ during their service is something else.
First off, the title of the report is outrageous and should already allow the viewer/reader to prepare themselves for the extremism of the piece. Beyond that, it was clear this is extreme ‘Michael Moore journalism’ where the reporter tried to show the darkest side without allowing a voice against it. Especially frustrating was the interview with the deputy Peace Corps director, as the report simply laid in question after question about incidents, although tragic, that happened over 10 years ago and before she was in any sort of administrative position.
However, I’m not sure where to stand on the Peace Corps response to these issues. As far as I know, at least on a country level, it’s rare to hear any of the announcements of sexual violence (or any incidents, really) against volunteers. Rather, we wind up hearing it through the volunteer grapevine. Usually, the central office is hush on any events against volunteers, largely out of respect and confidentiality to the volunteer.
Do they also do that to try to protect their image? I’m not entirely sold on that. The statistics on crime and violence against volunteers are publicly available and shared yearly with the volunteers.
And as for post-event counseling, I do believe Peace Corps was struggling with this for some time, especially with psychological support. While we have 3 Peace Corps Medical Officers for roughly 200 volunteers here in Peru, we have no psychologist on staff nor a ‘go-to’ psychologist in the regions. Normally, volunteers would have phone conferences with psychologists in DC…and while it’s a resource, talking on the phone is not the same in person (especially if the signal is weak).
The crimes against the volunteers are heinous and regrettable, and I thank the volunteers for sharing their experiences. However, I would like to say that Peace Corps is safe and the vast majority of volunteers complete their service without any major incidents. Especially in their communities, volunteers are heavily socially supported by the community and it’s actually one of the safest places to be. Most crime happens in the larger cities, where volunteers are more anonymous as are the perpetrators. And being white in a foreign city does make you a target, whether you’re a Peace Corps volunteer or not.
It’s a shame that such a great organization such as the Peace Corps received such a shoddy story with amateur coverage and analysis, especially seeing as how it has evolved from it’s former image of a two year vacation into a respectable development organization.