Crime And The Peace Corps Volunteer–Not A Novel!

Who’s protecting the PCVs overseas? Can PCVs be protected while overseas? These are questions that have plagued the Peace Corps from Day One.

Way back in 1960 the Daughters of the American Revolution were warning us about what would happen to young PCVs living in “backward, underdeveloped countries.”

Then in the 1965 civil war in the Dominican Republic, when Johnson sent five hundred Marines into the DR, supposedly to evacuate Americans and other foreigners, then added another 23,000 U.S. troops to keep, so thought Johnson, the DR from becoming another Cuba, there were PCVs in the middle of it all and living in Santo Domingo. Of the 108 Volunteers ini the country, 34 of them were in the barrios of the capital, 25 working as urban community development workers, 9 nurses running clinics. 

What happened to these “real heroines of the civil war’ as the New York Times correspondent Tad Szulc called the female nurses in his book Dominican Diary, is all laid out in Stanley Meisler’s new history of the agency, When The World Calls.  

Another book that looks at “PCVs in Harm’s Way” is coming out soon and written by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 1975-77).

Entitled, Peace Corps Chronology:1961-2010,  it is a valuable document that pulls together all the data about the Peace Corps from its first 50 years. It will be released by X-mas and available on Amazon.com in hardback ($23), trade paperback ($13) and e-book ($9).

In his book, Larry writes what has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen with Peace Corps Volunteers overseas. He also gives some answers to solving the problems of crimes and punishment within the Peace Corps world. Here’s what Lihosit has to say: 

“There has been an alarming increase of assaults and even murder of volunteers dating back to 1992. Many of the assaults were sexual in nature and targeted young female volunteers who now represent the majority. To date, the Peace Corps has not taken prevention seriously. Volunteers should be given an hour a day of self-defense class during training and supplied with shrill whistles and small canisters of pepper spray which any camper in the United States would carry. Since most victims of sexual assault are young females serving alone in tiny villages, it might be wise to assign them in pairs-the buddy system.” 

[The data from the Peace Corps own Inspector General and other sources within the agency.]

Dec., 1992 Acting Inspector General John S. Hale presented a 43 page report to Congress within which he warned of “a marked increase in violent acts against volunteers worldwide.” He claimed that his warning was ignored.

Dec., 1996 As assaults on volunteers increased, the number of medical evacuations for stress-related problems also increased by 78%. Dr. Joan P. Gerring believed that there was a correlation between volunteer safety and mental health.

Dec., 1998 As assaults on volunteers increased, the number of medical evacuations for stress-related problems also increased by 78%. Dr. Joan P. Gerring believed that there was a correlation between volunteer safety and mental health.

Dec., 2002 Assault on Peace Corps volunteers increased 125% between 1991 and 2002 although the number of volunteers only increased 29%. More than half involved female volunteers, alone.

Sept. 30, 2003 Congress passed a Consolidated Appropriations Bill which exempted certain Peace Corps security and safety related positions from the five year employment limit rule.

Sept. 30, 2003 Congress passed a Consolidated Appropriations Bill which exempted certain Peace Corps security and safety related positions from the five year employment limit rule.

Fall, 2003 The Dayton Daily News ran a week-long series of articles about increasing violence against volunteers overseas. Nearly three-quarters of the victims were female volunteers. Rape was of particular concern. Since 1991, violence against volunteers had doubled.

Sept. 30, 2003 Congress passed a Consolidated Appropriations Bill which exempted certain Peace Corps security and safety related positions from the five year employment limit rule.

Fall, 2003 The Dayton Daily News ran a week-long series of articles about increasing violence against volunteers overseas. Nearly three-quarters of the victims were female volunteers. Rape was of particular concern. Since 1991, violence against volunteers had doubled.

Jan. 23, 2004  The President signed into law a Consolidated Appropriations Bill which exempted certain security and safety related Peace Corps positions from the five year limit to employment.

Mar. 24, 2004 Congress held hearings on world-wide increased violence against Peace Corps volunteers. While Gaddi Vasquez, Director, defended the agency’s response, other witnesses disagreed. Jeffrey Bruce, editor of the Dayton Daily News said, “The extent of this safety problem has been disguised for decades, partly because the assaults occurred thousands of miles away, partly because the Peace Corps has made little effort to publicize them, and partly because the agency deliberately kept people from finding out while emphasizing the positive aspects of Peace Corps service.” The father of Walter J. Poirer, missing in Bolivia since 2001, was blunter, “We found Peace Corps to be more concerned with its image and protecting the aura and prestige of the Peace Corps than any other issue.”

Jun. 30, 2004  Worldwide, volunteers totaled 7,733. The annual Peace Corps security and safety report stated that 23 security and safety related staff positions had been exempted from the five year limit to employment.

Dec., 2006 The attrition rate increased to 35%, the highest since the first Gulf War.

Fall, 2007  More than half of all volunteers were women (59%). This is a reverse of the trend during the 1960’s when men represented 65%. The relative number of ethnic minority volunteers had risen to 17% of the total while those over the age of 50 represented 5%. During the 1960’s some estimated that less than 1% of volunteers were ethnic minorities. The average volunteer age decreased to 27 years (three and one half years older than those volunteers who served in 1965).

Dec., 2007 In its annual report on safety, the Peace Corps documented nearly 100 cases of sexual assault per year for 2006 and 2007. Victims were 92% women, mostly very young (20’s) and alone.

Apr. 15, 2008  A study of Peace Corps volunteer deaths between 1984 and 2003 concluded that the death rate had decreased compared to the rate between 1962 and 1983. However, while the number of accidents and suicides had decreased, the number of homicides had increased.

Nov. 14, 2008  During the last ten years, volunteers have been evacuated from at least 27 countries. At least three evacuations were directly attributed by the Congressional Research Service to the War on Terror; Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyz Republic.

Nov. 16, 2009  Nearly seven years after the Dayton Daily News reported about dangers for volunteers, the 2009 Peace Corps Performance and Accountability Report stated that only 21% of foreign posts had annual reviews of safety and security plans. Only one in four performance goals to enhance volunteer safety and security had been met.

Apr. 15, 2010  First Response Action, a group of former volunteers who survived sexual assault, posted a web site about their efforts to convince the Peace Corps to adopt a Seven-Point Plan for improving reaction to rape. In response to a letter that the leader of the group sent to Director Aaron Williams, two staff members made a conference call to her during which they reported the agency’s support.

Apr., 2010 The annual safety and security report was released. Although sexual assault on volunteers (rape and attempted rape) had more than doubled since the 1990s, recommendations did not include serious prevention (training and equipment). Instead, the report recommended more studies, reports, classes for volunteers on “life-style” and even required that trainees sign statements that they understood “inherent risks.” No mention was made that nearly 4 in 10 volunteers had served in Africa which had the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world.

Jun. 16, 2010  The director presented a 200 page report to Congress concerning the requested agency assessment. The report recommended that the “5 year rule,” revised in 2003 with exceptions, be further relaxed. The report also stated that headquarters (Washington D.C.) employed 536 to support an estimated 7,800 volunteers in 77 nations. The last time the Peace Corps fielded a comparable number of volunteers was in 1974 when about 8,000 served in 68 nations. That year they were supported by 156 employees in Washington D.C. Although the headquarters support staff had more than tripled and communications became instantaneous with computers, the time of application to invitation had increased to 15.5 months, training of volunteers was reduced from 12 to 14 weeks to 10 to 12 weeks and as mentioned earlier, no appropriate rape prevention had been undertaken. Note that training had included 16 to 17 weeks in 1967. The same report stated that 23 programs had been closed or suspended within the past decade. Seventeen were related to “serious concerns for volunteer safety.”

9 Comments

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  • I have told this tale before, but it bears repeating here. President Johnston insisted that Sec’y of State Dean Rusk pull all of the PCVs out of the Dominican Republic for the sake of their safety. Rusk refused, saying to the President: that “America has more than one foreign policy.” That is as true today as it was then.

  • Isn’t that the same administration that made “collateral damage” a popular phrase? You don’t have a daughter in the Peace Corps today, do you?

  • This is unacceptable. Thank you to Lorenzo for the research and to John for publishing it here. The Chronology format is invaluable in highlighting the dimensions of the problem.

    I would recommend, again, peacecorpsonline.org using the search key “Safety and Security,” not only to read more about the Dayton News investigative journalism, but to read the vigorous discussion by RPCVs on the issue. But, sadly, that is now more than five years old, and the problem has not been resolved.

    For me, the most outrageous accounts included those Volunteers who had been assaulted and then did not receive proper medical treatment or counseling. In some posts, there was a “blame the victim mentality. This problem illustrates, for me, many of the institutional problems within the Peace Corps. But that speaks to long term solutions. Right now, something needs to be done, immediately.

  • Dave Gurr,

    I don’t think you understand the problem. I don’t think your following quote is relevant:
    “Rusk refused, saying to the President: that “America has more than one foreign policy.” That is as true today as it was then.”

    America has never had a foreign policy which required or tolerated the rape of American women serving their country in foreign lands., as one of its strategies. American has never had a foreign policy which tolerated American civilivans being used as targets.

    As an aside, I was in Colombia at the time of the marine landings in the DR. People were outraged. They demanded I do something to stop it. This was a few weeks after there had been a FARC attack in our vicinity. At that time, people told me that the United States would never let Colombia be taken over by the communists. Peace Corps co-existed with FARC insurgencies for fifteen more years before it finally withdrew. Ransom had been paid for a kidnapped Volunteer and that, of course, put a price on every PCV. However, during the three years Richard Starr was held hostage, PCVs continued to work in Colombia. I think that is the kind of foreign policy to which you are referring

  • John, Thank you for telling us about Lawrence Lihosit’s upcoming book compiling Peace Corps data for the last 50 years, a very valuable service. Thanks so much, Larry.

    The dangers faced by PCVs are alarming and apparently have grown over the years, despite redoubled efforts to insure safety. While certainly not wanting to dismiss safety concerns, many of which I discuss frankly in my own Peace Corps memoir, Triumph & Hope (I experienced a purse snatching, a robber coming through my ceiling while I was sleeping, malaria, and a close call with lightning), I also think the risks need to be evaluated in context and in comparison to those faced by similar demographic groups right here in the U.S. So I’d like to play devil’s advocate. For example, nearly all college campuses see deaths from vehicle accidents, suicides, rapes, overdoses of drugs or alcohol, and, occasionally, homicides, yet few would consider college to be a dangerous place. Very probably, overseas service in the Peace Corps involves more risks to health and life than living here in the States, but some risks—say from tropical illnesses— go with the territory and an applicant should know them going in.

    Obviously, the majority of volunteers do not suffer lasting damage from Peace Corps service but, on the contrary, enjoy lasting benefit. Every effort should be made to insure safe service, both in terms of volunteer placements and safety education (i.e., avoiding late-night hitchhiking or bus travel, leaving city night clubs in the wee hours, drug and alcohol use, eating street food, having unprotected sex, driving cars or riding motorcycles, etc.). Nonetheless, life everywhere entails risks, more so in developing countries, especially for foreigners (although, small-town people are often quite protective of foreign helpers in their midst). It’s impossible to eliminate all risks from life or from Peace Corps service. And we don’t want to scare away would-be applicants from an experience that has so much potential for enriching them and people overseas. That said, Peace Corps does need to constantly step up safety efforts (as, no doubt, is already happening on an ongoing basis) and find better ways to protect volunteers without putting them in a cocoon. The spread of cell-phone technology has a lot of potential for increased protection.

    I recently spoke to a middle-aged couple who said they would never consider joining Peace Corps themselves because their daughter had needed a kidney transplant after her service. I asked if her service had contributed to her kidney failure and they admitted that it really had not. However, although Peace Corps had immediately medevacked her to the States, somehow they held Peace Corps responsible, since the problem had occurred during their watch.

    I also know, at least once, that one PCV actually murdered another. Does that mean that’s a danger of Peace Corps service? We need to evaluate Peace Corps’ risks in relation to those of everyday life. None of us is immortal and bad things happen in every environment. My son and foster son both died prematurely right here in the USA, and neither one was a PCV.

    Barbara E. Joe (Honduras, 2000-20003)

  • Thanks for this excellent posting. These issues have not been examined and discussed enough in public during the history of the Peace Corps I think. I assume that motor vehicle accidents still pose the greatest danger to PCVs worldwide but, the world does seem to have become a more dangerous place in many other ways in the last 20 years.

  • Barbara, You have made an excellent case for a position I didn’t have the guts to go public with. There is danger in the world, and probably a bit more in the PCV life, but I suspect that well under 1% of the 200,000 who have served suffered significant harm from their time away.

  • Barbara,

    I just reread your post and realized the full impact of your last sentence.
    I am sorry for your tragic loses. Condolences.

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