May 11, 2011

Rape in the Peace Corps, ctd

Congressional hearings have begun on the Peace Corps' rape/sexual assault scandal touched off by ABC's report a few months ago.  This Times article hits all the right points, I think:
When [Jess Smochek] returned to the United States, the reception she received from Peace Corps officials was as devastating, she said, as the rape itself. In Bangladesh, she had been given scant medical care; in Washington, a counselor implied that she was to blame for the attack. For years she kept quiet, feeling “ashamed and embarrassed and guilty.”

Today, Ms. Smochek is among a growing group of former Peace Corps volunteers who are speaking out about their sexual assaults, prompting scrutiny from Congress and a pledge from the agency for reform. In going public, they are exposing an ugly sliver of life in the Peace Corps: the dangers that volunteers face in far-flung corners of the world and the inconsistent — and, some say, callous — treatment they receive when they become crime victims...

The changes reflect the work of Ms. Frazee, who has spent the last 18 months tracking down Peace Corps sexual assault survivors by reaching out through social networking sites and her blog. Last year, her work attracted the attention of the ABC News program “20/20,” which ran a segment on the women in January. In recent months, Ms. Frazee, 28, has collected more than two dozen affidavits from other women, who have shared stories that Mr. Williams called “tragic.”

In interviews and documents, they paint a picture of what many call a “blame the victim” culture at the Peace Corps.
Atrocious medical care post-assault is easy to imagine, but I'm glad they aren't trying to paint this as a security crisis.  (Once again, at least for South Africa, I'd say the security side of the administration is excellent.)  I fully support Casey's efforts, and encourage everyone to visit their site to see where you might be able to help.

There is one other issue:
But whether such a bill would pass Congress is unclear. Representative Niki Tsongas, Democrat of Massachusetts, is co-sponsoring Mr. Poe’s bill, but other Democrats are skittish about it. They worry that the legislation, and Wednesday’s hearing, might be used to undermine the Peace Corps — the legacy of a Democratic president — and cut its funding.
That is a serious concern; witness the way Republicans have been using the debt "crisis" to jam through huge cuts to programs they don't like—programs that have little or nothing to do with the deficit.  However, given the good reputation of the Peace Corps, it should be possible to get through a decent bill without totally gutting the program (any more than the $25 million that has already been cut this year, that is).  Just something to keep in mind.

Finally, I know I've said this a lot, but the Safety and Security Coordinator for Peace Corps South Africa is the finest employee in the organization.  For any incoming or newly serving volunteers, I urge you to make him your first call for any serious problem you have, no matter what.  He'll be your best and most persistent advocate, he's got contacts all over Southern Africa, and (I mean this in total seriousness) he'd arrive in a helicopter to come get you if it came to that.  The security director for most of Africa says that he is the best SSC in Africa—in all likelihood all of Peace Corps, and I believe it.

UPDATE: I should also mention, in light of my series earlier this year, that the quality of medical personnel here has increased hugely in the last couple months.  We got some new blood in, and if the Peace Corps rumor mill is any judge, the new medical officers are far superior to the last bunch.


  1. In instances in which I am familiar, the Peace Corps safety and security officer was not the main issue for the security and treatment of a targeted Peace Corps Volunteers. In the particular instance I am referring to in Azerbaijan several volunteers were targeted by the government for trivial reasons and nearly kicked out of the country. From what I've heard, the upper Peace Corps staff, Americans overseeing the whole operation, were primarily concerned with keeping the situation as quiet as possible under the pretext of security for other volunteers although it became quite clear that it was only to avoid PR problems for Peace Corps even at the expense of the volunteers it affected. The volunteers were scolded on several occasions when it became clear that other volunteers might be aware of their difficulties with the government, and there was little if any concern as to how this whole predicament was affecting the targeted volunteers service or how the information was spread in the first place. The whole thing seemed completely unprofessional and after watching the 20/20 special and reading the article from the NYT, it appears that Peace Corps has learned little from their previous blunders and embarrassments. I would hate to see the program cut but it definitely needs to change some of its policies for handling extraordinary situations for Peace Corps Volunteers.

  2. I agree, and given some of the situations I have personally witnessed here, your story sounds pretty familiar. I hope that Casey's group can help provide an impetus toward greater accountability throughout the Peace Corps.