Peace Corps must better address assaults and murders of members

With the passing of Sargent Shriver, and the anniversary of the John F. Kennedy presidency, a lot of organizations and media have been celebrating the Peace Corps. And that’s terrific, because I think the Peace Corps is an incredible agency, one that’s done amazing work and that I hope will be around for many, many more years.

But now is a time when the Peace Corps also needs to take a hard look at itself with regard to how it deals with the safety of its members in the field, particularly its female members, and particularly with regard to sexual assault, including rape.

Bad things happen to aid workers, even in the Peace Corps. I saw some disturbing things when I worked abroad, and dealt with some very disturbing things first hand. Aid workers — especially women — are in very vulnerable situations when they are abroad, no matter their ages, no matter how they dress, etc. — and sadly, there are many people who will take advantage of that vulnerability.

I’m a fan of the Peace Corps, though I’ve never served in such. I’ve met up with many Peace Corps members in the course of my work and travels abroad, and they have been consistently wonderful people. I love trading stories with them. I love reading their blogs. I love the projects they undertake. I’m a believer.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m not extremely bothered by mistakes by the Peace Corps with regard to the sexual assault and murder of some of their members, particularly over the last 10 years. And these gross mistakes need to be talked about in the open, in a very public way.

In the last decade, there have been 1000 sexual sexual assaults and rapes of PeaceCorps volunteers, and the vast majority of the victims have been women. This month, the USA television network 20/20 has put together a piece about women Peace Corps members who were sexually-assaulted while serving abroad, and how these women’s needs both before and after these crimes were not addressed by the Peace Corps. You can view the interviews with some of these former Peace Corps members here.

20/20 also did a profile of a slain Peace Corps volunteer, Kate Puzey, who was murdered after the Peace Corps leaked her name to a suspect she had accused of sexually abusing children. You can view part of the story here.

There is more at the 20/20 web site, but the specific videos related to the Peace Corps are hard to find there, so expect to look around quite a bit.

My heart breaks for these women who were ready to give up two years of their life working abroad, living in conditions that most Americans could not tolerate, far from their friends, families and homes, all to make a small corner of the world a bit better and to help people understand that, at our best, Americans can be good, caring, supportive people. And my heart breaks because I’m watching an important institution stumble — even fail — in a very public way.

When you have messed up as an institution, it’s not time to circle the wagons and chant “no comment” over and over again. It’s not time to roll out meaningless statistics like “98% of our members say they felt safe while serving” or to say that “the investigations are ongoing.” It’s time to do everything possible to sit down face-to-face with *every* aggrieved person and say, “Please tell me what happened,” followed by, “What did our organization do/not do for you.” You don’t have to admit guilt at that time, but you DO have to listen, to take notes, and to show that you care. And it’s time to say, in a very public way, “We are talking to every person, face-to-face, who has said this happened to them, and we are going to help connect them with the information and resources they need. Because we deeply care about what has happened.” The perception of transparency, honesty and accountability are absolutely vital for any institution to be trusted and supported by the public. And even if litigation is pending, it IS possible to address those perceptions both for those who have been harmed and for the public who are watching events unfold.

AND IT’S NOT THAT HARD.

Institutions are made up of people, and people make mistakes, so not only is no institution going to be perfect, there are sometimes going to be some really awful things done by humans representing those institutions. But this isn’t random misteps at the Peace Corps; the 20/20 story shows that there is a systematic problem:

  • the organization does not know how to consistently address accusations of sexual assault or criminal activity that are observed by its members,
  • its staff members do not know how to consistently address fears of sexual assault addressed by their members,
  • its staff members do not know how to consistently address the needs of Peace Corps members who are the victims of sexual assault, and
  • staff do not know how to appropriately address this kind of negative, truthful media report.

Make it right, Peace Corps. You can correct this. Starting now. There are plenty of things you can do that won’t jeopardize any legal proceedings currently under way or in the works. Think about what the right thing is to do — every staff person knows what that is — and then do it. And I will blog about how wonderful it is that you have turned things around.

Peace Corps Online, an independent news source regarding the PCs, has covered ABC’s investigation of the murder of Benin PCV Kate Puzey. Its own original coverage of the crime, comments on Peace Corps actions, the email Puzey sent her country director about sexual incidents with Puzey’s students and with another PCV, the back story on how RPCVs helped the Puzey family, and Peace Corps’ official statement. There is also this PCOL Editorial: One major shortcoming that the Puzey murder highlights is that Peace Corps does not have a good procedure in place for death notifications.

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