Feb 17, 2011

Rape in the Peace Corps, ctd

A women's issues blogger over at about.com quoted me in a post about the recent rape controversy:
So I've been reading, researching...and learning that ABC News only exposed the tip of the iceberg. This tendency of the Peace Corps to downplay, misdirect, and sweep things under the rug has been going on for decades, and a number of women have paid for it with their bodies, their peace of mind, and in some instances their lives...

I hope this goes somewhere because just like the women who serve in the military, the women who serve in the Peace Corps deserve our utmost protection from rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. If it's happening, we need to stop it. If it's being covered up, we need to find and expose examples. And if we want more women to sign up, we have to make sure they know all the facts, not just what looks and sounds good.

I hope the Congressional hearings move forward. I hope the Peace Corps makes the necessary changes to protect every single volunteer, female and male alike. In two years, I hope -- no, I want and expect -- to send my daughter off to the Peace Corps with pride. And without the slightest bit of hesitation on her part...or mine.
Later, in the comments, she adds (I'm reposting this because I think it's worth highlighting):
My call for “stopping all rape in the Peace Corps” is part of a larger call for stopping all rape. Period. As I write this, it’s Valentine’s Day, and many women observe this as V-Day, Eve Ensler’s global movement to stop violence against women and girls.

No level of rape is acceptable, ever.

You obviously wouldn’t want to be sexually assaulted or raped, since you stated in your blog that you’re glad to be male in South Africa. Thus you recognize the risks your fellow female PCVs face that you yourself are untroubled by. It’s odd then to hear you express the view that stopping rape “would mean shutting down all programs in those countries.” because you’re suggesting that it’s okay to put women at risk as long as they’re doing good for others. Does that mean that women are worth the risk but men are not?

Those programs wouldn’t necessarily be shut down if you had in mind protecting women at all costs. Those programs could certainly continue if the majority of volunteers were males, and they could also continue to be staffed by women IF THOSE WOMEN ARE TOLD OPENLY ABOUT ALL INHERENT RISKS and they agree to go WITH FULL KNOWLEDGE.

Be open. Be forthright. But don’t play fast and loose with a woman’s life or her sense of safety and security. The crime takes only minutes, but the emotional scars last a lifetime. Doesn’t that woman deserve to know the truth about her commitment?
Emphasis mine. I replied:
But again, there is no cover-up on the agency-wide level. The safety and security officials here in South Africa have been forthright and open about the assaults, rapes, and harassment here and in neighboring countries from the beginning of training. There are a lot of problems with Peace Corps administration here, but they never tried to lie to us about the dangers of rape and sexual assault.

I heartily agree that no rape is acceptable. I would say the same about murder. The optimal level of such crime is zero. But we don’t live in such a world. Some level of rape is (horribly) a given for the foreseeable future, so if you say the maximum level of risk for any female volunteer is zero, then no women would be allowed into any Peace Corps country. The reason that would likely shut down most of the posts is that the large (and growing) majority of volunteers are female. I just returned from training the newest group of South African volunteers, and there were 32 women and 12 men.
It's hard for me to write about these things because for one, I'm a man.  Every story on sexual assault of any kind brings out the worst kind of toxic male douchebags (see here, for example, and even some of the comments on Linda's post), and I desperately want to avoid the faintest whiff of such filth.  Second, writing about sexual assault and rape inevitably makes me consider the possibility of my female friends and family suffering such an attack, and (even for a hypothetical case) I am filled with a revulsion and hatred so intense that I can scarcely think straight.

But Linda's offhand comment above ("Those programs could certainly continue if the majority of volunteers were males") struck a nerve with me. I was reminded of Echidne's post on the Lara Logan assault. Here she outlines one kind of victim blaming that those aforementioned toxic douchebags tend to engage in:
This experience teaches women that there are jobs women just cannot do. They get raped if they try and should stay at home, reporting on high school football games. I include that example because I came across it three times in the first 200 comments linked to above. Thus, women can be reporters but only about something which doesn't let you advance very far in your career or truly compete with men. And the reason is not the women themselves but what can be done to them by some men. Thus, it is the victim who should pack her bags and go home, while the assaulters don't get told to do that.
Now, I don't think Linda was suggesting anything like that, but I think the upshot of her prescription for the Peace Corps is much the same. (I would welcome a clarification. Just to be clear, I think Linda is misguided, not a sexist or a victim-blamer.) Assholes like Peter Schweizer very often respond to stories like Logan's, or the Peace Corps controversy, or violence against journalists in general, by saying something like, "Well, what were you expecting?  Of course a blonde babe/white person/etc. is going to be attacked.  Don't go overseas if you don't want to be raped."  Conor Friedersdorf righteously responds:
If Schweitzer weren't so callous and uninformed about his own profession, he would understand that every editor who sent a journalist to Egypt did do with the sickening knowledge that they might be targeted; that lots of preparation is done and lots of precautions are taken; that many who head out to report these stories do so with a lump in their throat, braving dangerous situations not because they are naive or foolish or unprepared, but because they rightly believe that having eyes and ears on the ground is vital even when it is dangerous, so that reliable information is available (even to sites like Big Government, which link reports from the field, but mostly dishonor the brave men and women who do the work by imposing on it distorted analysis as blinkered as anything you'll find).
The female Peace Corps volunteers I know are quite aware that they are taking some risk of rape or assault by joining up (though that risk is not zero back home, a fact that is often lost). It's nothing like the kind of danger repeatedly stared down by Logan, whose courage I can't even begin to imagine, whose stone-cold determination leaves me frankly awestruck, but it is real.  They take these risks because they are doing something they consider worthwhile, and that is the right and privilege of every free American.

For more, Kristin has some cogent ideas and criticism here.

UPDATE: Ann Friedman has an excellent post at Feministing with related thoughts.

11 comments:

  1. You said what I was thinking. I am going to read Ann Friedman's post as well.

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  2. Yeah, Feministing is always a good read. Glad you liked the post.

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  3. Great post. I have to say that this whole incident has revealed things about some of my fellow Americans that I naively did not know about. I have worked among the working class, as well as academics and professionals--so it isn't just a 'class' thing. Of course, I agree, like Gandhi, that all forms of violence are unacceptable--however, every form of violence has some meaning within a context. And murder, mugging, bar fights mean something different than rape. Even rape doesn't always mean the same thing--but every case of rape has one thing in common--the target of the rape is not a person. The woman in question is not a peer--does not enter into an 'I Thou' relationship--in some cases is an object just to be used--in some cases an object to inflict pain on others--father, brother, community. In almost every case, Rape is a political act--and this sets it apart from every other form of violence. The world only exists because women have given birth to it. Every human alive owes a debt to all mothers. That there should be so much hate in the world directed against women is the sadness of the world-- a form of profound mental illness--probably all of it stemming from unresolved birth trauma. We are not doing a good enough job of teaching men why Rape is impermissible. We must do more to teach boys not to become forces of darkness and despair.

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  4. "We must do more to teach boys not to become forces of darkness and despair."

    You know, I often say the same thing here in South Africa. A majority of money and programs goes to educating girls about standing up for themselves and the like. It's an admirable goal, but it seems like some forget that women wouldn't have to defend themselves so much if the male culture wasn't so sick.

    What's more, the women here (particularly the grandmas) are basically the backbone of the country. What few models for success there are in the village are mostly women. It's depressingly easy for boys to fall through the cracks.

    More here.

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  5. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. Found your Blog thru link in Atlantic Magazine:Andrew Sullivan's Blog. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Antofagasta Chile in the late 60's, I know and always acknowleged that I was extremely fortunate never to have been assulted. Not because of any violence nor anti-women culture there, but because I was so naieve & careless in many of my actions. PC & Chile changed my life's direction forever and I will always be grateful & appreciative for this opportunity to serve.Wish all the best for you in your journey.

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  6. Thanks a lot! Yeah, my jaw about dropped off when I saw Andrew had linked me (ME?!). Though it's a somewhat hazardous experience, I reckon the administration is quite a bit more cautious than they were back in the day. I remember stories from volunteers on their second tour that seemed to end with nothing but a motorcycle and a wide-open country.

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  7. You wrote, "Second, writing about sexual assault and rape inevitably makes me consider the possibility of my female friends and family suffering such an attack, and (even for a hypothetical case) I am filled with a revulsion and hatred so intense that I can scarcely think straight."

    I'm assuming you know more than two or three women, so sadly, the statistical odds are some woman or girl in your social circle has suffered sexual assault. However, it's not generally a topic of conversation.

    -- Anna

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  8. I served in the Peace Corps in Central Asia four years ago. (I am a woman) I completely agree that the very real threat of sexual harassment and assault, up to and including rape, was made painfully clear to us during training. And I thought what most young people thought: "It won't happen to me, if I'm lucky, and if I'm not, the threat isn't any greater here than it was at home."

    As for sacrificing women's lives or safety for the integrity of the program, chew on this: I know several women who experienced severe harassment or situations which escalated to unsafe levels, including one kidnapping. These women were reluctant to report the incidents, not because they were afraid of the perpetrators, but because Peace Corps' reaction to those situations is usually immediate and non-negotiable: Remove the volunteer for their own safety. I know of several male volunteers who made the same choice in the aftermath of a mugging or a fight.

    Why would they do that? What sane person would fail to report a violent crime? Well, some would argue that PC volunteers aren't *quite* sane, but the reason is very simple: Peace Corps volunteers are dedicated to their work. Leaving early creates all sorts of problems for their host communities, leaving projects undone and applications unfinished, lessons untaught. People sign up for Peace Corps, knowing it will be two of the hardest years of their lives. No electricity much of the time, poor sanitation, lack of potable water, nigh-sanity-crippling levels of bureaucracy, endless sickness... and higher likelihood of violent crime, yes, including rape. Volunteers *know* the risks, often better than PC Staff. We do the job anyway.

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  9. "I'm assuming you know more than two or three women, so sadly, the statistical odds are some woman or girl in your social circle has suffered sexual assault. However, it's not generally a topic of conversation."

    That is true. I actually knew a couple people in college who were open about being assaulted. It does carry an extreme force though, however irrational, when I think about my sister, my girlfriend, my mother.

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  10. "the risk is not zero back home either."

    This comment really bothered me. I have a PhD in statistics, and make my living in the field. In many of the countries the Peace Corps works in, the risk while walking alone at 5PM is 1000X higher or more for westerners. This is not acceptable and JFK's Peace Corps seems to be intentionally turning a blind eye to the fact. Why are women's groups not more vocal on issues like these?

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  11. I would be very interested in the statistics you mentioned, with more of an eye to the actual number of rape cases during service. Links?

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