Organization offers anything but peace

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By KRISTEN CLOYED, ASSISTANT SECTION EDITOR

Peace Corps volunteers are mostly optimistic young people who want to make a change in the world.  But some volunteers who wanted to change lives overseas have returned home with their lives changed for the worse.

After years of silence, Peace Corps volunteers have come forward as victims of rape and sexual assault. An ABC News investigation earlier this year followed the stories of six women, all of whom said the organization didn’t offer them enough support. One victim, Jess Smochek, said she was treated as if it was her fault she was gang raped in Bangladesh in 2004, and made to list all the things she’d done to provoke her attackers. When asked if any of these women believed the organization’s protocol of three therapy sessions was enough to ease their pain, all six of them shook their heads.

These victims’ stories highlight the dangers that female volunteers face in foreign countries. Between 2000 and 2009, there have been 221 rapes and 1,078 sexual assaults on Peace Corps volunteers. A 2010 survey of volunteers revealed that nearly 40 percent of those raped and 50 percent of those sexually assaulted did not report their attacks.

Before sending people abroad, the Peace Corps uses training videos to prepare volunteers for the worst. The women who came forward said that the video they saw pertaining to rape and sexual assault took a “blame the victim” approach. In the video, three victims are asked to describe what they had supposedly done to bring on the attacks. When questioned, officials promised ABC News that the video would be replaced.

While that’s surely a step in the right direction, why did it take pressure and a possible scandal for officials to do the right thing? Did they think blaming the victims would scare women into keeping quiet? That’s not acceptable under any circumstances. American citizens should be treated with the same care they would receive at home. The last thing these women need is to feel like they must suffer in silence.

After they were attacked, the victims weren’t given the help and support they needed to recover. Smochek’s story was just one example of how the Peace Corps mishandled the situation. After Carol Clark, stationed in Nepal in 1985, reported she was brutally raped and beaten for 15 hours, she was instructed to tell her fellow volunteers that she was leaving because she had dysentery. The similarity between both stories shows how little the Peace Corps has evolved over the years.

Smochek, Clark and the other women said little was done afterwards to ensure their lives weren’t consumed by their traumas. As soon as this was exposed, the Peace Corps rushed to correct the problem by hiring a victim’s advocate to help women navigate the healing process and offer advice on how victims can prosecute their attackers.

Victims should be given support and attention for as long as they feel necessary. Their lives will forever be marred by this suffering. Their needs should not be carelessly dismissed.

These examples are not representative of the entire Peace Corps, but volunteers need to be aware of potential dangers and victims need to know they aren’t alone. The Peace Corps website boasts of sharing “America’s most precious resource” with the world: its people. But based on the way the organization has treated these women, it seems the Peace Corps believes otherwise.

Attempts to reach Peace Corps officials for comment were unsuccessful.

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