Amid the celebrations of 50 years of international service, the Peace Corps has been in the spotlight for a far less laudatory record.
Following an ABC News “20/20” report in January, in which volunteers who survived rape or sexual assault while serving in the Peace Corps expressed dissatisfaction over the support they received, the agency has been under fire.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing, likely in May, to examine the Peace Corps’ treatment of volunteers who have been victims of rape or sexual assault while serving abroad.
The issue caught the attention of Representative Ted Poe (R-Texas), founder and co-chair of the bipartisan Victims’ Rights Caucus who, citing the report, first spoke on the House floor about the issue in late January.
In an interview with THE MICHIGAN REVIEW, Poe said he hopes to “find out what has happened to victims of crime, why crimes are committed against them, and what the response has been from our federal government, if any.”
In the last decade, over 1000 female volunteers have been victims of rape or sexual assault, including 221 rapes or attempted rapes, 147 major sexual attacks, and 719 other sexual assaults, according to Peace Corps’ Annual Reports of Volunteer Safety.
Casey Frazee, a graduate of Eastern Michigan University, is one of these assault survivors. In 2009, Frazee was placed in South Africa where she volunteered at an HIV/AIDS clinic. Soon after arriving, she was assaulted by the brother of her host mother, a man who was also dating one of her co-workers at the clinic.
Seeking counseling, Frazee went to Peace Corp’s South African headquarters where she was told “there wasn’t anything in the budget.”
“At first I thought I was ok because I feel like I’m generally a very strong woman and I thought I could deal with it,” she said, “but it became very clear that I couldn’t…I just totally fell apart…I didn’t trust anybody. I started to get really severe PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) symptoms.”
Her parents then called the Peace Corps Headquarters in D.C. where they found out that their daughter had been misinformed by the in-country Peace Corps staff person. In fact, there is always money for volunteer help.
Frazee left South Africa and returned stateside, still very traumatized from the experience. She began asking a lot of questions. “I wondered: what are my rights? Am I allowed to get counseling? Am I allowed to get a new site because I had to be pulled out of the site where I was? How does that process work?”
Taking a leap of faith that she was not the only return volunteer with this experience, Frazee founded First Response Action, a support and advocacy group for Peace Corps sexual assault victims. In under two years, Frazee said around 50 women have sent her their stories, and others have come forward to say they are survivors.
“You only ever hear about the shiny, happy volunteers,” said Frazee. “Unfortunately, not everyone gets that experience—and it’s not their choice to go that route.”
In the ABC News report, six women spoke about their grievances towards the Peace Corps. Some felt unsatisfied with the number of counseling sessions and others felt as if they were blamed for the assaults. Jess Smochek, a volunteer who served in Bangladesh in 2004, said she received guidance from Peace Corps staff to tell others that she was leaving service to get her wisdom teeth removed, not because she was gang raped.
“We wanna air all of this out and find out exactly what the truth is,” said Rep. Poe, “And make sure that these American angels, as I call them, operate in safe environments when they work overseas to help other countries.”
In 2009, there were 15 rapes, according to the Safety Reports. Over the past 10 years, there has been an average of 22 rapes yearly.
“Twenty-two a year is 22 too many,” said Poe. “I don’t think that is some statistic to brag about.”
But the Peace Corps says it is making gains. “We will never be able to eliminate volunteers’ exposure to crimes overseas, but we will continue to do our best to make Peace Corps a safe and productive experience for the Americans serving today and in the future,” said Alison Price, Peace Corps’ Communication Director.
The women involved in the 111 incidents in 2009 represent around 1.6% of total volunteers in service at that time.
Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams has taken the issue very seriously since being sworn in in August of 2009. And while the issue has gotten a lot of attention this year, Price says the agency has been working on it for a long time.
While many support systems are currently in place, according to Ed Hobson, Associate Director for Safety and Security at Peace Corps, the agency is developing a more comprehensive strategy to enhance their policies. “We have a sexual assault prevention and response program that is designed to provide a lot of information upfront before volunteers go to post and then build on that information as they get to post and start to provide very much a country-specific context and focus for that information,” he said. “So part of that is going to be general awareness and part of it is going to be risk reduction and mitigation strategies.”
Frazee’s group, First Response Action has developed a “7-Point Plan,” with suggestions for bettering Peace Corps’ policies. Among them are a detailed Survivor Bill of Rights, development of a non-discrimination policy for survivors and the creation of a Victim Advocate position.
David Fleisig, Regional Security Officer at Peace Corps, said that Peace Corps has engaged First Response Action on a number of issues and many recent policy changes incorporate the group’s ideas. The Victim Advocate position is in the final stages of being filled.
The agency has been working with experts across the federal government in addition to groups like the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, some of whom will testify at the upcoming hearing.
According to the Department of Justice, sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes nationally. The latest volunteer survey indicates that just under 55 percent of volunteer sexual assault victims and about 67 percent of volunteer rape victims did not report the crime to Peace Corps.
Most common among the reasons cited for not reporting a sexual assault to Peace Corps are that the volunteer felt it was minor incident or common to report, followed by the belief that Peace Corps would not be able to help.
The Peace Corps has a very broad definition of what constitutes a sexual assault incident. The majority of the cases fall into the category of “other sexual assault,” which includes anything from a stranger grabbing a volunteer’s buttocks on a bus to an uninvited kiss in a bar. By U.S. standards, these incidents would typically not be recorded as a sexual assault.
Regional Security Officer Fleisig, said that these broader definitions are in place “to ensure that our volunteers get the support they need… We recognize that each incident may have a different impact on the volunteer. Some may just brush it off. But for some that may be a moment that impacts them on a larger scale.”
Among the concerned parties, many, including Frazee and Rep. Poe, are still avid Peace Corps supporters.
“I think it is one the best things that this country has ever come up with and I admire those volunteers,” said Poe. “Whatever we need to do legislatively or administratively through the Peace Corps to make these volunteers work in a safe environment, that’s what we will do.”