Letter to NYTIMES from Barbara Ferris (Morocco 1980-82)

Celebrating the Peace Corps
Published: May 21, 2011
To the Editor:

Ex-Peace Corps Volunteers Speak Out on Rape” (news article, May 11) threatens to overshadow 50 years of service by Americans in some 140 countries around the world.

It is true that sexual assaults happen to Peace Corps volunteers and women all around the world, and yes, we should all grieve over these terrible acts. It is also true that from time to time such tragedies may not be handled well by some agency staff as well as some host-country counterparts. But these facts belie a larger and more important truth.

The Peace Corps has had more than 200,000 volunteers working in some of the most remote corners of the world safely and successfully. But even with rigorous training and responsible oversight, volunteers can never be completely immune from sexual assault and violent crime. And yet Peace Corps volunteers are often safer in the huts and villages of half the globe than in our own cities or college campuses.

The Peace Corps appears to have fallen victim to those in Congress using a serious and emotional issue in an effort to reduce funding for one of this country’s best and most cost-effective programs when we should be celebrating its legacy and expanding its programs.

We grieve with our sister volunteers who are victims. We support their demand that the agency improve response and treatment services. But as we mark the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, let us celebrate the thousands of Americans working to eradicate poverty and bridge cultural understanding around the globe.

BARBARA FERRIS
Washington, May 11, 2011

The writer was the Peace Corps’ first coordinator of Women in Development and is now president of the International Women’s Democracy Center.

14 Comments

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  • Well said! Important that while Peace Corps deals with the issue of violence to its Volunteers, the extraordinarily valuable work of Peace Corps Volunteers throughout the world continues.

  • Thanks Barbara…we need to look at the bigger picture and weed out those that cannot follow the policy of Peace Corps concerning Sexual Harassment.

  • This is a difficult comment to write. I respect everyone’s opinion and certainly Barbara Ferris is both eloquent and experienced with women in the developing world, both PCVs and HCNs. However, I must protest the assertion that somehow the recent hearings and the proposed legislation is in anyway a political effort to defund or distract from the work of Peace Corps Volunteers, now and throughout fifty years.

    I have neither seen nor read anything that would substaniate that assumption. Quite the contrary. It is not fair to the RPCV women of First Response Action or the committee members of House Foreign Affairs or to Director Williams and others who testified to suggest otherwise, absent evidence to support that.

    The Hearings were a necessary part of the legislative process. They should result in legislation to give the force of law to policies now in place and to make them permanet, regardless of which political party is in power and hence in charge of the Peace Corps agency. What would really be tragic would be if a split within the RPCV community undermined the work of the RPCV men and women of First Response Action.

    To be blunt, our “Peace Corps ” as an agency exists only in myth. What is housed at 1111 20th Street, NW, Washington DC. is the bureacratic equivalent of a “floating crap game.” Its staff is a collection of transient civil service employees, many of whom are retired military whom have the employment perference that RPCVs do not; and, political appointees who make decisions and may or may not have any Peace Corps experience. Policy reflects the Director, appointed by the White House. When the White House changes hands, it is fruit basket upset.
    The policy makers go. New policy makers come in. New policy makers are under little obligation to follow the policies now in effect.
    Legisation would protect serving Volunteers, regardless of who is in power.

    I don’t live in a Shirley Jackson world, where we gather around from time to time, knowing that one of us will be sacrificed to keep the rest of us safe…until the next time. We are better than that.

  • Thank you for writing this Barbara. You said it all..for so many of us.
    You have been one of our best leaders and your work for Women in Development has been inspirational

  • I am the author of Peace Corps Chronology; 1961-2010 which is now available in a second edition with a new index. During my research, I found out several surprising things discussed in the preface and noted in the text. The most depressing had to do with violence against volunteers which has increased geometrically since 1992 when it was first reported to Congress. It was depressing because for an entire generation, nothing substantial has been done. Remedies have included the bureacratic two-step: more classes, more paperwork and blame the victim. Depressing is not strong enough. As a father and a former voIunteer, I am disgusted.

    The arguments about this problem have not changed over the years. Many believe rape is acceptable. Many believe mention of problems will result in less budget and/or problems recruiting. Rape should never be acceptable and anyone who dares to dismiss our children’s safety in unarmed foreign policy for political reasons should be shunned.

    I watched the House Committee chairwoman’s opening statement and found her to be very succinct. The women who testifified were courageous. There are many real solutions. For instance, the Peace Corps already keeps track of crime. Post that data on the internet so that potential trainees can decide whether they wish to accept an invitation. If they do accept, make work in the most dangerous parts of those nations voluntary. Finally, include one hour of self-defense in each day of training. Supply trainees and volunteers with shrill whistles and small canisters of pepper spray- just like any camper in the U.S.A. might carry. The combination of these items might give the young American the opportunity of escape.

  • Oh! I forgot. Back in the 1960’s women were assigned in twos- the buddy system. This was abadoned years ago and the Peace Corps has regularly assigned young women to remote villages, alone. That’s not just silly, it’s crazy. And we are all supposed to shut-up for the good of the Corps? Nonsense. That’s what the first amendment of the Constitution is all about. The be-quiet stuff comes from the military balony.

  • It is equally surprising that I have not read one comment on this blog about A. Williams’ testimony. Upon questioning, he stated that the Peace Corps does not place volunteers in danger. Given that the Peace Corps routinely places young single women in remote villages is in fact putting them in danger. He was either ignorant of this fact (and incompetent) and very cowardly. President Obama should accept his resignation.

  • In India it would simply not have been appropriate for a young woman to live alone. I think all female PCVs in India were placed in pairs (men often were posted solo). And I have this vague memory that women placed alone were given companion dogs. Or maybe that was something we made up: a woman posted alone should be given a guard dog.

    I’m with you 100%, Lorenzo: women should always be posted in pairs, either with another PCV or with a co-worker. That should be non-negotiable. Maggie (my site mate) and I together had the care and support of the villagers we lived among. Either of us solo would have been considered a whore. Our coworkers, all married women who worked out of the home, had to fight for their good reputations in the villages. What were they doing out when they should be at home taking care of their husbands and children?

    And while I’m at it, when Maggie and I went to the cities, we knew we could depend on the guys in our group to be our “cousin brothers” and keep the gropers away. I think we need to factor the behavior of Peace Corps men into any equation that deals with appropriate behavior between men and women. I think only one fellow from our group ever visited our town (George, are you out there?). He was a model cousin brother and did his part in keeping our reputations unsullied. Not a whiff of scandal in Karera, MP.

    Jane

  • Peace Corps is doing what it always does;find another agency like OPM or others to justify their actions.Congress was trapped like anyone else.Aside from two workers per site and allowing them to live together,a security analysis will show the requirement of living with host families and maybe relocations are where many security issues arise.

  • I agree with Lorenzo and Jane. I served in 63-65 and all women in rural areas were assigned in pairs. We also had men Volunteers in our area and that made a big difference. I believe it was a relief to the priest and the doctor who assumed responsibility for us that there were also American men Volunteers nearby. However, we were the first female PCVs in the area and so there was no established way for us to be treated. We certainly had a small “American” community in the middle of nowhere.

    The downside to having a partner was that we spoke English to each other and it made it more difficult for us to introduce ourselves into the commuity. Site roomate relationships could be very difficult, at times, also. As the months went by, the site assignments changed. Volunteers went home or transferred and new people arrived. I think it took almost a year before I felt that my municipio was my home and not my “site” and I was “Cuerpo de Paz,” not Peace Corps.

    Lorenzo, Director Williams may have been speaking about policies that he initiated. He may have mandated that Volunteers not be placed in unsafe situations. Other Directors may not have.

  • There were 203 comments on the NYTimes website in response to the article on Peace Corps safety. Almost all were from currently serving PCVs and RPCVs. I urge you all to take time to scan the responses.

    The website can be accessed by clicking on the article title in Barbara Ferris’s letter. “Ex- Peace Corps Volunteers Speak Out on Rape.”

  • Hello. I just read an op-ed piece related to the Times story from a volunteer in Kyrgyzstan. She reports being “grounded” in her village for two months. Grounded??? That’s the damnedest thing I ever heard. We learned to turn in our monthly medical reports on time and in great detail to keep the office off our backs, but no one would have threatened us with grounding if we broke some PC rule. Seems like you yank someone out of the site for bad behavior. A couple of guys were dismissed for smoking dope (legal in our state of MP—we had a government run ganja store in our town—but against US law). And one of our group had to be medevaced. But no one was ever grounded. That would have been too strange. Jane

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