The Free Press, Mankato, MN


May 15, 2011

Our View: Peace Corps needs quick reform

Peace Corps and altruism are terms that go hand in hand. Volunteers in the U.S. government program dedicate years of their lives to help those in other countries in the name of peace and friendship.

Despite that mission of doing good work, the Peace Corps’ reputation recently has been sullied amid allegations of not doing enough to help their own volunteers, especially women who become crime victims during their service.

During a hearing last week before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, former female volunteers described the agency’s culture of blaming the victim when they reported being raped. One volunteer told of being raped in Nepal in 1984 by her Peace Corps program director and becoming pregnant as a result. She said the Peace Corps told her she had to choose between terminating her pregnancy or leaving the corps, The New York Times reported. Another volunteer, raped in Bangladesh in 2004, said she was instructed to tell fellow volunteers “that I was going to Washington to have my wisdom teeth taken out.”  

The women’s experience spanned decades, making clear that the agency’s lack of action in the area of victim advocacy has been a longtime problem. The volunteer force is made up of 60 percent women.

From 2000 to 2009, on average, 22 Peace Corps women each year reported being the victims of rape or attempted rape, the agency says. During that time, more than 1,000 volunteers reported sexual assaults, including 221 rapes or attempted rapes. Because sexual crimes often go unreported, experts say the incidence is likely to be higher.

It’s difficult to believe that in this day and age, women are still being blamed when they are victims of sexual assault. The Peace Corps needs to step up and make sure their volunteers get the support they need when things go wrong during their service. Volunteers know they will face obstacles, and even danger, when they sign up for service, but no one should expect to be abandoned by their own agency when things get rough.

In the wake of the women coming forward, the agency is making a pledge to reform. That would be great to see, but with such a long-standing culture of looking the other way, someone outside the agency needs to make sure that change actually occurs.

The sexual assault survivors are seeking legislation that would require the corps to hire regional victims’ advocates and take other steps to reduce the risk of sexual violence and improve care of victims. That kind of legislative action is worth consideration. But no matter what way reform is achieved —  whether with Congress’ help or by administrative policing — the Peace Corps needs to regain its reputation by fixing this fast.

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