Stan Meisler's Comments on the Sexual Assaults in the Peace Corps

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.

16 Comments

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  • I don’t think that ABC exaggerated. In the first place, they always said “sexual assaults and rapes” not the other way round as Stan says. Secondly, when they added up the figures, they didn’t think that women were generally in the Peace Corps for close to two years. So they were counted twice. If you factor that in, it’s got to be about one in a twenty or twenty five chance of being assaulted or raped. Beyond that it’s not merely the numbers that are the problem but the way the victims were treated afterwards. I don’t think it does any good to pretend that there’s not a problem. There reality is that there are serious problems at the Peace Corps, many of them exposed largely because of the work of two former volunteers, Chuck Ludlam and Paula Hirschoff. NPCA is now muscling in and pretending it is concerned with reform. The real question–especially to returned volunteers who are members-is why NPCA has said or done nothing until ABC did this sensational expose? Partly, I think it’s because NPCA gets money from the Peace Corps and is not truly independent. Secondly, it’s because it’s far easier to sentimentalize than to struggle to create a bold new Peace Corps for the 21st century.

  • I think if you were to take a poll of female volunteers, you would find that most of us experienced “other sexual assaults” during our two years of service. After Maggie Harding and I were seriously groped at the Taj Mahal (1967) on an evening when there was a full moon and lots of security guys with “lathis” (big sticks for handling crowds) who just turned away, we changed our public behavior completely. We never wore even the most modest dresses after that time, and when we knew there would be a crowd, we went out with PC guys. “Eve teasing” was sport for young men at that time. Any unaccompanied woman (Indian, too) was fair game. In our village, and in the villages where we worked in Madhya Pradesh, we were never, ever touched. People who knew us were protective. But our behavior was more than modest. We were home by nightfall. We were never seen to smoke our Wills cigarettes in public. We always wore saris. We modeled our behavior after our Gram Sevika coworkers (who because they were women working out of their homes had to be models of propriety). There are many such stories out there. When we were in India, we shared them with each other, and they became part of the lore, which became part of our protective system.

    Jane

  • After reading Mr. Meisler’s response, I had to restrain myself from responding immediately with my army brat vocabulary. But I will say, as politely as possible that I reject any attempt to minimize the horror of rape and murder.

    It is interesting that Meisler went back to the Peace Corps statistical reports and did not go back to talk with the Peace Corps survivers of assault or the families of murdered Volunteers. Those are the voices which need to be heard, loud and clear, over the smothering attempts of apologists/.

    It is important to note when comparing statistics stateside with the evidence of what happens overseas, that serving Volunteers do not have access to the same police, legal, medical, and supportive resources that students on American campuses. do. The comparison makes no sense.

    What Meisler also missed is that Volunteers serve at the pleaure of the President and do not have contractual rights. They can be dismissed for almost any reasons. This failure to provide for the most basic of civil rights during service means that Volunteers may be intimated from reporting assault, particularly if the aggressor is a Peace Corps employee, HCN or US.

    I support the valiant women of First Action Response and every Volunteer who has spoken so honestly about horrific experiences. I will support any and all efforts to make Peace Corps service safe.

    My Valentine”s present was going to be Meisler’s book. I think instead I will just ask for a contribution to those organizations protecting women.

  • Hi Larry,

    Thanks for participating in this conversation, however it’s important to get your facts right before writing the umbrella statement that “NPCA has said or done nothing until ABC did this sensational expose.”

    The National Peace Corps Association, in fact, gave a platform to the First Response Action group when the victims came to us in 2009 by publishing an article in our magazine that is distributed to all serving PCV’s and NPCA members. We helped Casey to connect with other volunteers to form her group and were supportive *well before* this story was making headlines. There is evidence of this in our blog post here: http://bit.ly/fHeFnC.

    Casey, one of the women who spoke in the 20/20 program, wrote in March of 2010 and January 2011:

    “I am proud to announce that an article I wrote for the National Peace Corps Association has been published in their recent quarterly magazine, WorldView. The magazine’s audience is primarily Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs). WorldView reaches RPCVs from the early 1960s, when the program began, up to volunteers who are returning now…. I also extend my gratitude to Erica Burman at the National Peace Corps Association who thought enough about this issue to give it a wider audience. Thank you Erica. I am so appreciative.”

    NPCA provides resources for the community to stay informed about safety and security in the Peace Corps on our website here http://bit.ly/dI7GLB.

    Plus, NPCA has built an online network for the Peace Corps community to discuss these issues and continue to do what we do best – help volunteers with their next step in changing the world.

    Best,
    Molly

  • To Joey: I don’t think it’s possible to make Peace Corps service safe. There is a good discussion on that topic on a message board (http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=593210). And it is true, the comparison with college campuses makes no sense. On a college campus a young woman might expect to be safe. Those support systems you mention—police, legal, medical—are overworked, and women are still blamed for being provocative: She was asking for it. A woman in the Peace Corps can make no assumptions (see my post above about the “security” police) about whose side the authorities will be on. We are always outsiders, but we take on that status willingly. That said, we can train our volunteers and our staff members better. And we might also take a look at how Peace Corps men conduct themselves. Are they frequenting the local whorehouses? Are they seen as having no respect for local women? Are they seen as good models for how to treat women? Just curious. Jane

  • You are right, Jane. There is a risk associated with Peace Corps service
    I should have said, “safer.” The problems which have been identified should be addressed and solved.

  • not sure if Larry has a right to speak about women’s issue as he has in his interview mentioned with John ” I was a history major and my closest friend and I went to the college library and studiously researched the Peace Corps countries, learning where we might have the best sex life. I read an old book about Nepal that said it was the custom to offer the visitor the most attractive woman in the village.”

  • To “some girl”: I am trying to conjure with the vision of a young woman going with her closest friend to the library to study up on which countries might have cultivated a custom of presenting a female visitor with the village stud as a way of welcome. Perhaps Madeleine Albright or Hillary Clinton might offer some insight there. Jane

  • You have to be real careful when playing the numbers game. When spreading the probability out worldwide, the Peace Corps might be correct. Underneath the cover of averages, however, there are most probably nations with high incidence of sexual assault, robbery and murder. The Peace Corps has a statstics office. Post the real numbers n the internet so that applicants can see for themselves before accepting assignments. Also post maps for each nation with the incidence of these crimes delineated by region and give volunteers the right to decline assignment to those most dangerous parts. Now that’s transparency.

    Radical? We have agreements with all nations that they hand over volunteers to the embassy for immediate deportation in the event that a volunteer is involved in a crime. Radical is issueing a 38 caliber revolver and ammunition to each volunteer and supplying them with free range time with the marines. Give them suggestions that they shoot to kill. In the event of a problem, send them home. Hell, they don’t even prosecute and punish volunteer murderers and rapists. Tit for tat. Now that’s radical.

  • Lorenzo, Lorenzo. No guns, por favor. I think the transparency part makes very good sense. Of course, that’s all variable, too: we felt safe in our villages way out beyond the beyond. We knew the cultural rules, and as long as we obeyed them, we were good. In the cities, we proceeded with care. So what do you tell a volunteer headed for a region with a project assignment? Somewhere there is going to be violence. And, as was obvious in Tunisia, situations can change rapidly. Jane

  • Excuse me, Mr. Meisler, but the one fact you’re not getting is that THERE IS NO SUCH THING as a non-major sexual assault. Any woman who is harassed, threatened, touched, fondled, or thrown down and raped is the victim of a major sexual assault.

    When are guys, who are usually the apologists, going to get it?

    Leita

  • Hey, “Some girl” and ‘I just read this thing and thought I better comment. I made that comment about going to the library and studying the Peace Corps country in terms of sex in a joking way. I was celibate my two years in Nepal. I thought it was pretty obvious I wasn’t serious, but the world is full of literal minds.

  • To Larry L. Humor, alas, is the trickiest form of expression and the easiest to misunderstand when taken out of context and minus a tone of voice. I am glad you clarified. Aloha, Jane

  • To Leita: I agree for a species that claims to be a little lower than the angels, we do a sorry job of cherishing women (or men, for that matter). But it seems that there are two considerations here in dealing with the fact that women are too frequently (as you say) harassed, threatened, touched, fondled, or thrown down and raped. We can clump all these together as an indicator of a failing in society and press for laws like Sweden has (no tolerance).

    But what then? When we miss making the distinction between a social indiscretion and evil, we fail to activate our powers of discernment, one of the skills the defines our humanity. I would not be willing to see those idiot guys (probably now respectable citizens and protective grandfathers) who grabbed and groped us at the Taj Mahal (see comment above) go to jail for life. Violent rape? Probably so. I have never been the target of a violent physical/assault. I have been careful in my travels, but I know there are no guarantees of personal safety. And no real way to avoid immature male behavior (in Italy, for example). When it comes to safety, luck helps.

    Jane

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