Dear Concetta:

I am a college graduate interested in applying to the Peace Corps, however my family is concerned about my safety in certain areas of the world. They are convinced that as an attractive young female, I could be kidnapped, raped, or sent into human trafficking. How can I ease their worries? Also, which areas are considered safer than others, and how can female volunteers protect themselves?

Grace

Hi Grace:

True story…. When I got my Peace Corps assignment I did what many future volunteers do… ran to a map to try and figure out where Thailand was.  Then secure in this knowledge (or at least secure enough to fake it) I began to tell my family about my prospective new home and a few of my relatives were a bit confused.  One Aunt said to me “but isn’t like 80%  of what we get in the States made there?” (this was back in the early 90’s before the boom of Chinese products). It took me a while to get it but eventually I exclaimed “No, no.. not Taiwan …ThaiLAND!”

Point being:  any person who decides to volunteer for Peace Corps should be prepared for some interesting family discussions.  While my example might be a bit goofy, there is probably no greater topic for concern and communication as your safety- particularly true if you are a woman.  Herewith my two cents:

PLEASE NOTE: I am in no way stating or insinuating that any victim of sexual assault (in the Peace Corps or otherwise) did or did not follow these suggestions nor that this action or inaction contributed to the violence they experienced.

Does Sexual Assault happen to Female Volunteers in the Peace Corps? Sadly, yes it does.

Does it happen at a greater frequency than anywhere else in the world? No.

Are there things that you can do to make yourself safer? Absolutely.

Here’s the thing- at least 50% of the people who live in your host country are women. These ladies can be your biggest ally.  Sure it might mean that you give up a little bit of your US of A defined “freedom” but trust me, it’s worth it.  When I was a trainer, one of the biggest complaints we’d get from female volunteers in training during homestay was that they’d want to go for a walk to clear their head only to find that 5 (or more) little family members were following at close range making the volunteer slightly paranoid that the kids were “trailing” them.  I would explain that yes, they were absolutely trailing them.  The “face” of their family (that is their standing in the community) and that of the village as a whole was extremely linked to how well they took care of you. If something happened to you, and you got hurt -aside from being a complete bummer for you- it could potentially deal a devastating blow to how the rest of the community perceived them.  No one wants to be the family whose PCV broke  an ankle because she fell in a rice field. So, my first recommendation is to give up your notion of  “personal space” and allow some wise women to keep their collective eye on you- and if that means that you have little escorts on your daily constitutional then so be it.

Next up- “What to wear? What to wear???”

OK- so as you might expect, there is a story (funny and slightly humiliating as it may be)- here too.  There’s no delicate way to say this, so I’ll just come out with it…. I am a bit ahem…chesty- the last time I could go bra-less was somewhere around the release of Michael Jackson’s first solo album (and yes that means “Off the Wall” NOT “Thriller” ).  So- you can imagine the shock and amazement I must have felt the day one of my co-workers blurted out (without a hint of irony or sarcasm) “Oh- YOU wear a Bra???”   Ummmm… HELLO??? WHAT??  I said “Why yes, yes I do- but you seem surprised” and she replied (again completely earnestly)- “Well I just thought that American women didn’t wear bras- at least that’s what I heard” (now implied but NOT stated is the misconception that American women are a bit free-wheeling in the love department- never mind that half my Thai friends got more love than I did in my time overseas…)  Aside from feeling righteously indignant this scenario begs the question- what are you gonna do????  And here’s where dress comes in- I went out of my way to be the most politely dressed person in my village.  There is a weird psychological thing that happens when your neighbors only ever see you in culturally appropriate clothes- almost as if you are indicating every single day- I know your rules and I am abiding by them.  Was it my favorite thing to wear skirts and dresses (with slips of course) to work every day for 2 years?  Not so much.  Do I think that it helped send out a non-verbal signal that I was respectable and should be respected? Yes I do.

Finally, remember that while your role in your host country requires you to be more or less apolitical with regard to host country politics, you are indeed in the Peace Corps which is a federal agency and has (or should have) a host of people at both headquarters and at your host country admin HQ whose sole job it is to ensure that you can properly fulfill your duties as a volunteer safely and effectively.

I hope this helps and thanks for writing.
Concetta