Former volunteers are accusing the Peace Corps of blaming them for their own sexual assaults. Today, the issue goes before Congress.
In January, ABC reported that over 1,000 female Peace Corps volunteers had been assaulted in the past 10 years. One said the Peace Corps had ignored warnings that she was in danger, eventually resulting in her gang rape. Others told stories of being blamed for their assaults because they had had a drink or gone walking in the evening, and some said that after they were assaulted, the Peace Corps made it difficult or impossible to seek adequate counseling. Volunteer Karestan Koenen (pictured), who will testify before Congress today, says she was raped in Niger in 1991. When she tried to report it to a Peace Corps official in Washington, this was the response:
I walk into her office and the first thing she says to me is, 'I am so sick of you girls going out with men, drinking and dancing and then when something happens, you call it rape.' I felt like someone had just kicked me in the stomach.
Another volunteer, Carol Clark, tells a similar story: when she reported her rape in 1985, she was told to list the ways she'd put herself at risk. And things may not have changed all that much. According to ABC, the Corps is still showing a rape awareness training video in which victims describe their mistakes and say things like, "I wish I had made different choices." The video doesn't seem to be online, but there's a Facebook group describing its content. Says one poster,
It gets its point across about the dangers of drinking and putting too much trust in others but still, I couldn't help but feel uneasy, and paranoid that just being me could be a rape sentence during my Peace Corps service. Maybe that was the point, to make volunteers overly sensitive of the potential consequences of their actions. Yet we all know the responsibilities we are facing as women in more conservative environments...I suppose it could have had just a bit more reassurance that it is/was no woman's bad judgment or recklessness or overall fault.
Until recently, the Peace Corps has had a pretty squeaky-clean image, and the volunteers' allegations are sure to shock a lot of people. Of the organization's victim-blaming attitude, Koenen says, "People need to know that this is a chronic problem that the Peace Corps has been unable and unwilling to change." Maybe today's Congressional hearings will be the first step toward toward the change she's seeking.