Globe Editorial

Peace Corps must do more to protect volunteers abroad

May 20, 2011

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THE PEACE Corps owes Casey Frazee a debt of gratitude. Frazee, a young volunteer who was sexually assaulted in South Africa in 2009, has spent the last two years urging other similarly victimized Peace Corps volunteers to come forward. That these women were attacked is itself horrible. Worse yet, the Peace Corps has maintained an institutional callousness towards the brutality. In vowing not to “let the Peace Corps toss me off like I was an isolated incident,’’ Frazee is forcing a recalcitrant federal agency to take responsibility for the safety and security of its volunteers.

The Peace Corps, the epitome of American idealism, sends young volunteers to work on development initiatives in many corners of the world, some of which have proved quite dangerous. These volunteers, it became clear in recent congressional hearings, received little training on what to do if they feared for their own physical safety in countries where the police are hardly reliable.

Worse, when women did come forward with allegations of rape, the Peace Corps brushed them off — paralyzed, perhaps, by a desire to protect the agency’s own mission and to avoid antagonizing volunteers’ host countries. A number of volunteers have reported that the organization treated them as if they were responsible; in one instance, a victim was forced to write that she was intoxicated during a sexual assault.

This stance kept the corps from seeing a systemic problem. From 2000 to 2009, more than 1,000 volunteers reported sexual assaults or rapes. The true number is surely well higher; in a 2010 poll of Peace Corps volunteers, half the women who had been sexually assaulted did not report their attacks.

The Peace Corps has finally woken up to its culpability as Congress begins oversight hearings and discussions of proposed legislation. Director Aaron Williams has hired victim advocates and revamped volunteer training. He has retracted a controversial training video that, to critics, suggested that it was solely up to women volunteers to avoid sexual assault.

There’s much more to do. Volunteers need better in-country training so they know what to expect and the dangers involved. They need access to sexual assault teams and emergency health care in the event of violence. They need the support of the corps when they return, including mental health services. Most importantly, the corps needs to begin real and extensive analysis of each country or area where its volunteers have been harmed. Rape and sexual assault often reflect a broader culture of violence, unsafe for any volunteers.

Some Peace Corps supporters have worried that focusing on sexual assaults could undermine a sometimes embattled agency. But the corps must confront this issue head on. And the only way its mission can be preserved is if it is prepared to end services in countries or areas that are too unsafe for young volunteers who only want to help.