Friday, May 20, 2011

Shameful Peace Corps response to sexual assault

A piece in The New York Times paints a disturbing portrait of how the Peace Corps handles reports of rape and sexual assault by its volunteers (PCVs).

The portrait was one of a 'blame the victim' culture within the organization. Some complained that the agency did not offer sufficient counseling to victims or advise them properly of how to prosecute their assailants.

But the most damning testimony was this: Jessica Gregg, who was drugged and sexually assaulted in 2007 in Mozambique, said a Peace Corps medical officer "made me write in my testimony that I was intoxicated" and suggested that "I willingly had sex with this guy." She and a number of other women complained that a training video the Peace Corps uses places too much emphasis on the role of alcohol in sexual assaults.

One victim opined "that the treatment by the Peace Corps was worse than the rape."

Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams said the training video would be changed. He also told a Congressional committee that he was committed to revamping the agency’s practices to create a more "victim-centered approach" [and that] the agency must modernize its procedures to "make sure that we provide compassionate care" to crime victims.

This is an admission that the agency's current procedures are sorely lacking. But words are not enough.

One PCV victim quoted was shocked that so little had changed in that regard since her rape in 1991.

Further, I'm reading the excellent book When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and its First Fifty Years by Stanley Meisler.

The book cites a 2002 General Accounting Office investigation which noted that while *reported* incidence of rape and other major sexual assaults against PCVs decreased 20 percent from 1991 to 2000, a 1998 survey revealed that women were not reporting 60 percent of rape cases to the Peace Corps.

Soothing words by Director Williams are not enough.

The Peace Corps is one of the most respected organizations in the country. People devote two years of their lives serving in uncomfortable, unfamiliar surroundings to try to help other people. They deserve far better treatment from the agency which sent them there.

Note: The National Peace Corps Association live blogged the Congressional hearings and has other information related to PCV safety.

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