Safety in International Volunteering Programs
More than 1000 Peace Corps members, most of them women, have been sexually-assaulted or killed in the last 10 years. The Peace Corps has come under a great deal of criticism regarding how it handles the safety of its members, particularly women, while they serve abroad. MOST members have a safe, satisfying experience in the Peace Corps, as well as other long-term volunteering abroad programs, but remember that those who have a negative experience tend not to blog about such or to be featured on the PeaceCorps web site. I have been stunned at what I have heard from women who are former Peace Corps members first hand, let alone what I have seen in reports on television shows like 20/20.
The reality is that there are MANY international volunteering programs that are also at fault regarding how they handle assaults on volunteers. The same is true of international organizations that place paid staff - many have poor, if largely unknown, track records regarding protecting their staff while working abroad.
My advice on what you can do to better ensure your safety abroad:
Your safety supercedes your volunteer commitment - if you are under threat, do what you need to do to get away from that threat if your volunteer-sending organization/host organization isn't responding appropriately.
- Before you apply for any volunteering program, you have to be the kind of person who knows how to explicitly express to your volunteering sending agency, in the most decisive terms, when you feel unsafe, and why you feel unsafe.
- Carry the address and phone number of your country's consulate or embassy that is nearest to you (or where you will be) while working abroad. If you get a cell phone in the country, put those phone numbers on speed dial.
- Absolutely insist on being in a home or accommodations where the doors and windows of where you will sleep can be locked/blocked - or where, if someone were coming through a window, you could hear them even when you are dead sleep and you have another exit.
- Become aware of cultural differences, specifically that pertain to attitudes toward women (especially American women or any Western women). Do not rely on the volunteer sending agency to give you this info.
- Read as much as you can before you go to a particular country -- and seek out women authors as much as possible, because men can sometimes gloss over cultural and safety concerns that women need to be very, very aware of. I suggest you purchase and read the Lonely Planet guide for the country where you will go, particularly the sections on safety and the police. Go online to the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree and read about the country you will be in, and consider posting any questions you have regarding the culture of safety, dealing with the police in that specific country, etc. Lonely Planet books offer tips specifically for women, tailored for each country, as well.
- You need to know how to remove yourself from any situation where you feel unsafe -- and that can mean abandoning your assignment, leaving the village, even leaving the country - and knowing how to arrange transportation yourself to do that. Have your own escape plan in case the volunteer sending agency goes silent or doesn't take your pleas for help seriously.
- Take self-defense classes before departure, and be prepared to be hyper aware of your surroundings at all times while serving abroad, including when you are in an office or when you are feeling especially comfortable.
- Never be afraid of being impolite if you feel that someone is stepping over your boundaries. And do not let ANYONE guilt you into doing something that makes you feel uncomfortable, whether it's coming into a shop or sharing a meal or talking to them or not calling your volunteer sending agency to complain. If someone calls your behavior insulting because you cut them off or walked away, too bad.
- Do not assume that your fellow volunteers are trustworthy merely because they are also volunteering.
- Never get drunk in a public place, and never let local people (and, for women, don't let even other men from your program) see you drunk.
- If anyone threatens you, or you simply feel threatened, get an escort (other volunteers, or someone from your host organization) to walk with you in public at ALL times, until you feel the threat has passed.
- Email and call your volunteer sending agency every day if you feel threatened, documenting the threats and unsafe circumstances in vivid detail. Blog about it as well every day that no action is taken by your volunteer sending agency. Continue to do so until action is taken or they pay your expenses to leave or you need to leave on your own. Make sure these dispatches have been saved online somewhere that the volunteer sending agency, your host family or anyone else could never delete them, but your own family back home could access them if needed.
Here are lots more thoughts about health & safety for USA women traveling, abroad or in the USA.
Return to my volunteer-related resources
- Vetting Organizations in Other Countries
A resource that can help you evaluate volunteer-placement organizations that charge you for your placement as a volunteer, as well as for people interested in partnering or supporting an organization abroad but wanting to know it's a credible organization, that it's not some sort of scam, or an 'organization' of just one person.
- Volunteering Internationally
Times have changed drastically in the last 30 years regarding Americans and other "westerners" volunteering in other countries. The emphasis in local relief and development efforts is to empower local people, and to hire local people, whenever possible, to address their own issues, build their own capacities, and give them employment. This strategy is much more beneficial to local communities than to bring in an outside volunteer. That said -- the days of international volunteers are NOT numbered: there will always be a need for international volunteers, either to fill gaps in knowledge and service in a local situation, or because a more neutral observer/contributor is required. This new page provides tips on gaining the skills and experience that are critically needed to volunteer overseas.
- Volunteering To Help After Major Disasters
Whenever a disaster strikes, hundreds -- even thousands -- of citizens in the USA start contacting various organizations in an effort to try to volunteer onsite at the disaster site. But what many of these people don't realize is that spontaneous volunteers with no training and no affiliation can actually cause more problems than they alleviate in a disaster situation, particularly regarding disaster locations far from their home. If you want to be a part of the mobilization for a future disaster, here are tips to help you get into "the system," get training, and be in a position to make a real difference.
- The realities of voluntourism: use with caution
Voluntourism is really awful and really good. I'm totally against it and I support it. Confused yet? This opinion piece is my attempt to explain why voluntourism sometimes works and why, very often, it's dreadful.
- Hosting International Volunteers
More and more local organizations in developing countries are turning to local expertise, rather than international volunteers, to support their efforts. However, the need for international volunteers remains, and will for many, many years to come. This resource provides tips for local organization in a developing countries interested in gaining to international volunteers.
- transire benefaciendo: "to travel along while doing good."
Advice for those wanting to make their travel more than sight-seeing and shopping.
- How to Get a Job with the United Nations or Other International Humanitarian or Development Organization
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