Peace Corps volunteers speak up about sexual assault

The Peace Corps has a terrible history with sexual assault. Today Congress is holding a hearing on violence, including sexual assault, in the Peace Corps. Brave volunteers are coming forward to share their stories.

Speaking up about sexual assault is always a difficult act. These survivors are also speaking about an organization they clearly believe in. It’s too easy to fall into the trope that sexual violence is something that happens in the countries where Peace Corps volunteers go, instead of everywhere, including the US. There is a push for prosecution included in organizing around this issue – I don’t know much on this topic outside the US, but I’m sure prosecuting sexual assault on Americans in international contexts brings added complications to an already difficult issue for those of us concerned both about sexual violence and the violence of criminal justice systems. There’s also the paternalistic trap of saying well, it’s dangerous for women so they shouldn’t be in the Peace Corps.

A lot of the focus, though, is on the lack of support and culture of victim blaming within the Peace Corps.

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.

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

Survivors are calling for greater support, for advocates, and of course for the end of this bullshit victim blaming.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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  • Jessie

    I am an RPCV who served 2008-2010 in Turkmenistan and find it utterly shameful that these survivors of sexual assault experienced the victim-blaming, coldness and lack of responsiveness. Changes need to be made to prevent such outcomes. That being said, I felt that medical care and safety management in the Peace Corps was very decentralized. It depends, country-office by country-office how such situations are handled. I felt the PC staff in Turkmenistan were very responsive and took preventive actions against sexual harassment and assault. We should be asking why some countries exhibit best practices while others are falling so far short.

  • Edward F. (Ned) Breschel

    I did not know (but unfortunately am not that surprised) that the Peace Corps both has such a bad sexual assault problem and is handling it so badly. I was a Peace Corps teacher in Kenya in 1984 and 1985. The first time back in Peace Corps headquarters in Nairobi after being posted, I found out that someone from my training group was raped her first day at her site. Fortunately, the medical staff were top-notch and very supportive as was everyone else that I heard of in terms of how this person was treated. No victim-blaming there that I heard of.

    However, I (and all the other volunteers there that I heard from) were not at all happy when we learned that the previous volunteer had, in his exit report, strongly warned that a woman should not be sent to that site. We never did find out who made the posting decision that put this volunteer at this site ignoring the previous volunteer’s warning. But we raised hell about it in an effort to see that it didn’t happen again. Obviously, one can’t prevent all sexual assaults. But it is tragic when some occur in part because of what might be most generously termed bureaucratic inattention that could easily be fixed.

    The Peace Corps sends volunteers to a variety of cultures around the world. The unfortunate truth is that in many of these, rape is a real hazard for women volunteers. Of course, as already mentioned in the article, our situation in that regard is not that great here at home. Peace Corps volunteers do amazing things and, in that sense, the Peace Corps is a very worthwhile organization. But it is disturbing to hear that for the women brave enough to volunteer and serve where they do, that the Peace Corps does not do all it can to prevent sexual assault, and in too many cases (of course any would be too many) resorts to victim-blaming. Kudos to those making the effort to see that women Peace Corps volunteers are given the respect, support and compassion they deserve.

  • Chesa Sevastopoulos

    I’m a RPCV from Fiji, and in 2004 I was sexually assaulted in my village there. I had told the country director multiple times that I didn’t feel my “home” was safe, and that it could be broken into with little effort. They did nothing for a long time. Finally, after constant badgering by me, they had some chicken-wire sent to my village and dropped off there, so that I could use it to “bar up my windows”. I had a villager help me do this, but knew that it still wasn’t really all that safe. On Valentine’s Day night, about a month later, I woke up to someone reaching into my window and fondling me, all over my body. I tried to grab this person I couldn’t see, and he slipped out of my grip. I thought I was safe, but soon realized that someone was actually inside my little hut. He had broken through the door. I wrestled with him for a while, and hit him with the mag light I always kept under my pillow. Finally, there was quiet.
    The next morning, I thought I was OK. I told a friend who lived in another village, and she convinced me to report it, at least to PC. I did. They pulled me out of my village and called the police. No one ever called the police in this culture. It was a judgement call they made, and unfortunately, it went terribly wrong. I stayed in the capital city for a few weeks while they “tried to relocate me to another village where I would be safer”. At this point, I thought they were handling things just fine. Finally, they called me in to talk with me. They sat me down and read me a list of horrific rumors that the village had told them about me, which started and snowballed as an effect of calling the police and handling the situation the wrong way. they read me this list of the most horrific sexual acts that I’d supposedly performed for many of the villagers. They implied that what happened was my fault. The Peace Corps seemed to agree. They told me I had to leave the country because they didn’t think it was “safe” for me, anywhere. They told me that because of this list, because of these things that they’re hearing, I can no longer serve there. I guess at some point my parents must have called them too, to get more clarity, because my father has blamed me too, since. They made me blame myself. They made me feel like it was all my fault, even though those things weren’t true. They made my family blame me.
    I don’t think I’ve ever been the same person after this. I still went on to serve in another country after this, but I stayed as far away from the PC administration as I possibly could–for fear that they would shame me again, or hurt me in the ways that they hurt me before.
    It’s both horrifying and a relief to me that so many others have experienced the same shaming and blaming that I have from the PC. Thanks for the article

  • Tessa

    In addition, Peace Corps volunteers cannot get federal subsidies for abortions, even in the case of rape or when their lives are at risk.

    Instead, they have to use their meager government stipends, make their way through sparse healthcare system, etc.