Next month Stan Meisler’s book on the Peace Corps When The World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years will be published by Beacon Press, here, Stan emailed me his ‘take’ on the issue of assaults in the Peace Corps based on his research and long experience with the agency. We should all listen to what Stan has to say.]

While writing my book on the history of the Peace Corps, I tried to deal with the sensational series of articles in the Dayton Daily News in 2003 that painted lurid pictures of mayhem in the Peace Corps. The ABC News 20/20 segment on rape raised many of the same issues and sent me back to the Peace Corps’ statistical studies of the problem. There is no doubt that ABC News and congressional investigators are exaggerating and distorting the issue.

First of all, let’s examine the claim that a thousand women have suffered rapes and other sexual assaults during the last decade. That is true, based on the Peace Corps’ own statistics. The trouble is that it sounds as if most of the victims or at least a large number were raped. That is not true.

The Peace Corps divides sexual assaults into three categories:
    (1) Rape or attempted rape.
    (2) Major sexual assaults (where an attacker uses a weapon or substantial force to grab a victim’s genitals, breasts, buttocks or anus).
    (3) Other sexual assaults (where an attacker does not use substantial force but reaches out to fondle or grope the victim, usually during daylight).

In its latest “annual report of volunteer safety,” issued last December, the Peace Corp reported that in 2009, there were:
    15 rapes or attempted rapes
    20 major sexual assaults
    76 other sexual assaults.

In short, most of the thousand victims of the last decade were victims of non-major sexual assaults.

According to the Columbia University Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center, one out of every 36 college women experience rape or attempted rape every year. If this statistic is correct, the 4624 women in the Peace Corps in 2009 were safer in their overseas posts than they would have been in college.

Of course, this is of no consolation to the Peace Corps victims and does not excuse the lack of support that the victims described in the television news show. That, of course, needs immediate correction.

There are two other issues. Is the Peace Corps assigning too many women to serve in villages by themselves without other Volunteers? Some Peace Corps veterans believe this is not a problem because families take a single girl into their homes and protect her from harm. Yet, if you read Elena Urbani’s memoir, you are troubled by the fears of sexual assault that she harbored in Guatemala for two years.

Also, the issue of sexual assault appears to be regional. Judging by the 2009 statistics, most offenses occur both in Central America and in Muslim countries, especially those that were former republics of the Soviet Union. I wonder if this is taken into account in assignments and training.