Women in Peace Corps - Rape, Sexual Assault in Peace Corps

Over 1,000 Cases of Rape, Sexual Assault Have Been Reported in Recent Years

Peace Corps volunteers
Madagascar Peace Corps volunteers. (Wikimedia Commons)

Is the Peace Corps safe for women? The news that over a thousand female Peace Corp Volunteers (PCVs) have been raped or sexually assaulted in the past decade has prompted Congress to hold hearings on the matter. These findings, reported by ABC News on their investigative news show 20/20 in mid-January 2011, are the most recent in a long line of stories that suggest the Peace Corps is more interested in protecting its reputation than its female volunteers throughout their two-year volunteer overseas assignments.

Since its founding in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, the Peace Corps has appealed to idealists and humanitarians who dream of living and working in an underdeveloped nation helping locals improve their lives. It's a dream that attracts a predominantly white population and draws much more women than men: 74% of Peace Corp Volunteers are Caucasian, 60% are female, 85% are younger than 30, 95% are single, and the majority are recent college grads.

It is precisely these women -- young, in their early-to-mid 20s, single -- that are at greatest risk, and there's ample evidence that the Peace Corps has routinely ignored the dangers and downplayed the rapes, assaults, and even deaths of volunteers so as not to tarnish the iconic Peace Corps image.

In 2009, 69% of Peace Corp crime victims were women, 88% were under 30, and 82% were Caucasian. In 2009, 15 cases of rape/attempted rape and 96 cases of sexual assault were reported for a total of 111 sexual crimes committed against female PCVs.

In nearly all cases of rape or sexual assault, the incident occurred in the PCV's first six months of service. However, the incidence of intimidation and death threats against PCVs occur most frequently during a PCV's second six months of service. Like rape and sexual assault, females and Caucasians experience higher rates of intimidation and threat.

The six young women -- all former Peace Corps Volunteers -- who stepped forward to tell their stories on ABC's 20/20 each described events of brutality and violence.

Jess Smochek was 23 and volunteering in Bangladesh when she was gang-raped by a group of young men who had stalked her for weeks. On the very first day she arrived, they pushed her to the ground and groped her. The group also went after two other female PCVs living in the same city as Smochek, groping, harassing, and fondling the women.

Despite repeated reports to Peace Corps officials that the three PCVs didn't feel safe and wanted to be reassigned, the volunteers were ignored. The young men -- realizing Smochek had spoken up about what was going on -- attacked her, telling her they were going to kill her. They raped her physically and with foreign objects and left her unconscious in a back alley.

When the Peace Corps took her out of Bangladesh and back to Washington, D.C., she was told to tell other volunteers that she'd left to have her wisdom teeth removed. According to Smochek, Peace Corps counselors who met with her to discuss the rape attempted to place the blame on her for going out alone at night, although "night" in this case translated to just past 5 pm.

This odd emphasis is reflected in the Peace Corps' own statistical reports on rape and sexual assault; its Annual Report of Volunteer Safety cites the time of day and day of the week each type of crime occurs and notes whether or not alcohol was consumed by the victim or the perpetrator.

Casey Frazee, who was sexually assaulted in South Africa in 2009 and went on to found a support group and website for PCV victims, says the Peace Corps' implicit message that if you have a drink, you're to blame if you're assaulted, is hurting victims of rape and sexual assault. Adrianna Ault Nolan, who was raped in Haiti in 1998, agrees. She told ABC News, "When bad things happen, you say to yourself, 'How did I bring this upon myself?' and I think, unfortunately, Peace Corps is hoping you'll think in that direction, too."

Although the ABC News story has received national attention, it is not the first in-depth investigation into the underreported incidence of rape, sexual assault, and murder in the Peace Corps.

On October 26, 2003, the Dayton Daily News published an article its reporters had researched for nearly two years. Combing through thousands of records on assaults on PCVs over four decades, the News staff also found stories of rape, violence, and death.

In El Salvador on Christmas night 1996, Diana Gilmour was forced to watch the gang-rape of two female PCVs on a lonely stretch of beach; Gilmour was subsequently raped by a man holding a gun. Seven months later, those same two female PCVs were attacked yet again, this time in Guatemala City, walking home from a downtown movie theater. While one woman managed to get away, the other was gang raped with a T-shirt pulled over her head and a pistol shoved in her mouth. The twice-violated victim was only 25 years old.

Within two months, three other female PCVs in Guatemala stepped forward to report they'd been raped as well.

According to the Dayton Daily News:

[Y]oung Americans - many just out of college and the majority of them women - are put in danger by fundamental practices of the Peace Corps that have remained unchanged for decades.

Though many volunteers have little or no experience traveling outside the United States, minimum language skills and virtually no background in their assigned jobs, they are sent to live alone in remote areas of some of the world's most dangerous countries and left unsupervised for months at a time.

In 62 percent of the more than 2,900 assault cases since 1990, the victim was identified as being alone....In 59 percent of assault cases, the victim was identified as a woman in her 20s.

Interviewing more than 500 people in 11 countries, the paper's reporters heard many gut-wrenching first-hand accounts from frightened young women:

"I am ready to go home. I don't like living in fear every single day," said Michelle Ervin of Buckeye Lake, Ohio, a 1998 University of Dayton graduate who was 25 when the Daily News visited her in the African country of Cape Verde in the summer of 2002. "Every day, I walk out of my house wondering who is going to rob me."

Similar to the ABC News investigation, the Dayton Daily News article revealed a culture within the Peace Corps that deliberately downplays any incident that might tarnish its reputation:

The extent of the dangers faced by volunteers has been disguised for years, partly because the attacks occur thousands of miles away, partly because the agency has made little effort to publicize them, and partly because it has deliberately kept some people from finding out - while emphasizing the positive aspects of Peace Corps service.

Two top agency officials overseeing security over the last 12 years said they warned the Peace Corps about increased dangers to volunteers, but many of their concerns were ignored.

"Nobody wanted to talk about security. It suppresses the recruitment numbers," said Michael O'Neill, the Peace Corps' security director from 1995 to August 2002.

When asked by the Dayton Daily News about the rise in sexual assault numbers, Peace Corps Director Gaddi H. Vasquez claimed that recent statistics indicated those numbers were in decline. That was in 2003.

In January 2011, when asked by ABC News reporter Brian Ross about the rapes and alleged coverups, Peace Corps deputy director Carrie Hessler-Radelet denied her agency had participated in anything of the sort. In response to Smochek's claims, Hessler-Radelet stated that she was new to the position and unaware of Jess Smochek's story. Just as Vasquez had done in 2003, Peace Corps officials in 2011 claimed that the number of rapes had been in decline.

Rape and sexual assault are not the only threats facing women in the Peace Corps. The murders of Kate Puzey in 2009 and Deborah Gardner in 1976, and the unexplained death of Stephanie Chance in 2010, are not the types of volunteer stories the Peace Corps wants associated with its image. The fact that Gardner's murderer was a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer who never served time for the crime -- and was given an exemplary rating for his service by the Peace Corps -- led New York writer Philip Weiss to dig further into the tragedy. Although his 2004 book American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps brought Gardner's decades-old story to light, the Peace Corps failed to hold Gardner's killer accountable, even when the agency's many missteps in the matter were uncovered.

Despite these incidents, the Peace Corp has retained its nostalgic JFK-era aura of idealism and service and continues to attract eager new recruits. The agency receives 10,000 applications annually, sends out between 3500 and 4000 volunteers to work in over 70 countries around the world, and will celebrate its 50th anniversary in March 2011.

Sources

Carollo, Russell and Mei-Ling Hopgood. "Mission of sacrifice: Peace Corps volunteers face injury, death in foreign lands." Dayton Daily News, daytondailynews.com. 26 October 2003.

Krajicek, David. "Murder in the Peace Corps." TruTV Crime Library, trutv.com. Retrieved 28 January 2011.

"Safety of the Volunteer 2009: Annual Report of Volunteer Safety." Peace Corps, peacecorps.gov. December 2010.

Schecter, Anna. "Congress to Investigate Peace Corps Treatment of Sex Assault Victims." ABC News The Blotter, ABCNews.go.com. 27 January 2011.

Schecter, Anna. "What Killed Stephanie Chance?" ABC News The Blotter, ABCNews.go.com. 20 January 2011.

Schecter, Anna and Brian Ross. "Peace Corps Gang Rape: Volunteer Says U.S. Agency Ignored Warnings." ABC New The Blotter, ABCNews.go.com. 12 January 2011.