A Journey from Trauma to Triumph
I am proof of the American dream. Not in the house-in-the-suburbs-two-point-five-kids-two-car-garage kind of way, but that I was so passionate about making something happen and I did it.
In 2009, I was sexually assaulted as a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Africa. It has proven to be the most devastating experience of my life. The tablecloth of my life was ripped out from under me before I was finished with the meal.
What followed the assault itself was a winding trail through the inner workings of a complex government system that had proven over its 50-year history to be classically unsupportive of survivors. Peace Corps had no global policy on how to effectively respond to and manage rape and sexual assault. Many survivors were blamed, shamed and pushed out of their countries as quickly as possible.
My American dream was to change the system to support survivors. I wanted Peace Corps to be known for its support of survivors of sexual violence. I saw Peace Corps emerging as a leader in women’s rights and spreading support for women in the dozens of countries where it has volunteers stationed.
The first step in my American dream was to start an organization, First Response Action, and gather a committee of fellow former Peace Corps Volunteers who were both advocates and survivors. Our mission was simple – make the system work for survivors. No more blame. No more shame.
Few other American institutions are as well-respected as the Peace Corps, so this task to uncover a flaw in the system wasn’t easy. Some people criticized us and were concerned that discussing this issue would tarnish the organization. Peace Corps is a great organization that does honorable work around the world. My colleagues and I know this – we merely wanted to make it better for everyone, including those who experience sexual violence.
Most people supported our mission. Women and men who were survivors of sexual violence in Peace Corps came out of the woodwork to share their experiences with us. I was humbled by the support we received from members of Congress like Ted Poe of Texas, Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, who chaired a Congressional hearing about safety issues in Peace Corps a year ago this week.
Following the hearing, the members of First Response Action and I worked with Congressional staffers on drafting legislation to support survivors. It was one of the proudest moments of my life when that legislation was signed into law on November 21, 2011, by President Barack Obama.
This legislation serves as a guide for Peace Corps officials to adequately respond to and work with survivors of sexual violence in a compassionate and informed manner. Survivors now have a framework to begin their healing processes.
This is my American dream.