Discourse / Letters / February 26, 2014

Life presents safety concerns

I am writing in response to the recently published article “Peace Corps Presents Safety Concerns.” I was dismayed by this article, published just prior to Peace Corps Week and just after Knox was announced to be number 10 amongst small colleges for volunteerism in the Peace Corps. I do not believe Peace Corps to be “absolutely wonderful and virtually faultless.” I would have considered  the article well-timed had it presented a thorough and balanced investigation of the issues it purported to examine. The article was disappointing in that it proclaimed to examine unsavory issues of the Peace Corps, but in reality took no stance on anything and failed to cite any investigation or evidence for its claims. It read more like an article of fear mongering, or a rushed attempt to complete a homework assignment.

As a returned Peace Corps volunteer currently employed at a resource center serving survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, I feel obligated to respond to this article. The author of the article mentions that advances have been made in supporting sexual assault survivors, but discredits them in the next sentence by stating the phenomena of underreporting. Let me assure the general public that neither the victim-blaming nor underreporting sexual assault are faults of the Peace Corps alone. They are constants throughout our society, and therefore common in  large organizations such as Peace Corps and the United States Military. I believe it is vital that these issues be addressed by the Peace Corps as well as other agencies and institutions, and am sad that it took a shabby 2011 expose on 20/20 to spur the legislative changes. However, having lived in the world I understand that governments, business, colleges and so forth respond very well to negative press.

Of larger concern to me is  the article’s focus on Peace Corps’ handling of all safety concerns by narrowly limiting it to look at sexual assault of women volunteers. This further promotes a patriarchal agenda of “protecting our women from foreign others,” a thoroughly racist and sexist sentiment. I am incensed and insulted. Sexual assault—wherever it happens, however it happens, to whomever it happens—is a devastating trauma that carries long lasting repercussions for the survivor as well as the individuals closest to that person. None of the coverage I’ve seen on this issue addresses the fact that there are RPCVs who were raped during their service, reported the assault to health officers and still chose to stay and complete their service. This is a strong indicator that there are posts where survivors were given the help and support they needed to address the physical and emotional trauma. Survivors who were convinced of the importance of their mission, kept that in focus and completed their service.

In my experience and that of the 30 other volunteers I trained alongside in 2008, we spent hours of our training time over a three-month period discussing what risks our service posed to our personal safety—risks to our sexual health, physical/sexual assault risks, robbery, personal injury and death from dangerous activities (cliff diving into lakes, hiking in the backcountry or scuba diving); parasitic and infectious disease risks; as well as dangers posed by natural disasters. We also discussed ways to mitigate that risk by constantly evaluating our situations and surroundings. I quote from www.peacecorps.gov, “While we cannot eliminate every risk that Volunteers face, the Peace Corps is committed to providing world-class training, guidance and support to every volunteer to ensure they remain safe, healthy and productive throughout their service.” It is my belief that as volunteers we have a very good idea of the risks our service poses to our lives. I do not know the protocols for every country, but in Guatemala all volunteers were sent quarterly crime reports to continually reinforce the necessity for risk mitigation in our personal lives at all times. Does that mean if something goes wrong it’s our fault? No. It means we tried to the best of our abilities to protect ourselves with the tools and training we were given.

The second point of the article was to discuss program evaluation. With 52 years of Peace Corps history, I believe there are ample opportunities to examine and articulate ways in which the organization has evaluated its various programs and used those programs to modify existing programs, as well as create new programs to address salient issues in a given country or region.

Dear author, you did not discuss current methods of evaluations, which leads me to believe you have no idea what they are. Pages of documentation and hard numerical data are required from every volunteer as part of our Close of Service procedure, reporting on success and challenges, numbers of presentations and contacts with clients, quantity of funds spent and measurements of efficacy of programs. Your generalizations reveal your lack of investigation as when you state, “…with all forms of organizations concerning developing countries, there is the fear that well-intentioned volunteer group agencies actually undermine state capacity.” Peace Corps’ mission is based on capacity building, so rather than undermining the state’s capacity, we are there to assist them in expanding their capacity to address issues. This means that volunteers always work in conjunction with host country counterparts from ministries of health and education,  municipal development agencies and so forth. Most importantly, we work only in countries and areas where we have been invited to work. We learn their language, their customs and what is and is not acceptable within our host country so we can frame solutions or proposals for change in a culturally relevant light. And, dear author, we make mistakes. We learn. We evaluate. We try again. Peace Corps has never claimed to “save the world” or a village or a family. And sometimes we lose.

In the case of Kate Puzey, we lost a dedicated and courageous volunteer. What many people do not appear to understand is that she made an incredibly bold move by going against cultural norms to address the terrible reality of child abuse. Child abuse, like rape and sexual assault, is a quiet epidemic that is universally underreported. Perpetrators by and large go unpunished in the United States and abroad. Neither I nor the author of this article can state with certainty the details of who did what wrong or to know without doubt whether her murder could have been prevented. What we do know is that we lost.

Putting ourselves out in the world exposes us to risks just as it exposes us to opportunities to learn and grow. Learning to operate in different cultures, with different norms for dealing with social issues, different justice systems and different levels of relative security is far more than a “grand adventure.” It’s a serious endeavor that increases our risk. The recent loss of fellow alumna Lexie Kamerman, though she was not Peace Corps volunteer, brings this reality home. Unfortunately, this articles demonstrates a lack of understanding of countries where security is a grave concern, even journalism poses personal safety risks any time an author publishes a serious article. We have such a tremendous responsibility for our words, investigations, cited sources and for the impressions our words leave on people.  You can choose to be ignorant about that responsibility, or you can choose to step up to it.

For that reason I urge and challenge TKS to use its resources to do a better and more thorough job of investigating the Peace Corps. Peace Corps is a government entity. It is a bureaucracy that spans an ever changing number of volunteers and countries.  Leadership of various countries and regions — their directors, their safety officers and the situational circumstances they deal with — vary so widely that it is foolish to make sweeping generalizations about the organization. It is foolish in the same way as it would be foolish for me to proclaim that my overall great experience in Guatemala reflects that of all volunteers from every country. In fact, I know that to be untrue. I challenge you, TKS staff, to take a deeper and broader look into the evolution of the Peace Corps, its programs and the experiences of its volunteers. And when you’ve done that, only then can we conduct an insightful, critical discussion of organizational strengths and weaknesses intended to affect change.

Emily Richardson Fanjoy

Tags:  peace corps Peace Corps volunteer safety sexual assault

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