Like the majority of Americans, I've always had a good impression of the Peace Corps. My husband had contemplated doing a stint with them when he was fresh out of college, and he and I have discussed volunteering when we both reached retirement age.
My older daughter Jaye has always wanted to travel the world and spend a portion of her life in service to others, and when she looked into the Peace Corps she thought it would be a great way to satisfy both desires. Having recently added an Education minor to her college studies in preparation for a Peace Corps stint, she's clearly planning ahead to make it happen.
And I was tremendously proud of her and endlessly supportive...until a couple of weeks ago.
That night, Jaye's younger sister Em and I were channel surfing and clicked past a woman talking about rape...and the Peace Corps?
We both looked at each other. Did we hear right? Rape in the Peace Corps?
Em, who had the remote, clicked back...and that's when we saw and heard the stories of 6 women who'd been sexually assaulted -- even raped -- during their time volunteering in the Peace Corps. They were telling their stories on ABC's investigative newsmagazine 20/20.
That's when I heard Adrianna Ault Nolan say, ""I have two daughters now and I would never ever let them join the Peace Corps."
Nolan was raped in 1998 while serving in Haiti as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Years later, she's still struggling with what happened to her.
I felt sick to my stomach.
I had no idea this was happening. I thought the Peace Corps was a universally positive experience, a great opportunity for a kid fresh out of college.
That night, I went poking around the internet. Little things began to show up. Here's an observation from a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Africa posted on his blog Donut Orbitals:
In a purely selfish sense, I am constantly thankful for being male in South Africa. The way women are treated here is nothing short of grotesque, and female volunteers routinely endure public sexual harassment that would usually earn the offenders a savage beating in the US. I don't even witness the worst of it, because (as the single girls will tell you) even the presence of another male volunteer drastically reduces the attention.
When I posted a link to the ABC 20/20 story on Facebook, more items surfaced.
One friend who wanted to go into the Peace Corps had a mother hell-bent on stopping her; the mom introduced the daughter to female volunteers who'd been there, done that, and had less than terrific experiences. Irritated at her mother's meddling, the daughter forged on but learned she'd have to graduate from college first. She ended up doing other equally interesting things with her life, but here's what she found out about the Peace Corps:
What I heard from people I spoke with was a general concern that women were often placed in fairly remote places without other volunteers in close proximity, which put them at considerable risk. I wouldn't write the Peace Corps off, because thousands volunteer and come home having had a life-changing experience. But if it were my kid, I'd make sure she was very well-informed before she signed up.
I bolded that last line because it was my wake up call. I knew, from my friend's own reaction, that nagging my daughter and telling her NOT to join the Peace Corps was tantamount to lighting a fire underneath her. She'd stick to her guns with even greater passion.
So I've been reading, researching...and learning that ABC News only exposed the tip of the iceberg. This tendency of the Peace Corps to downplay, misdirect, and sweep things under the rug has been going on for decades, and a number of women have paid for it with their bodies, their peace of mind, and in some instances their lives.
[A] Congressional committee announced plans for hearings on the Peace Corps' handling of more than a thousand cases of female volunteers who were raped or sexually assaulted over the last decade.
"This is very upsetting. If these numbers are accurate this is something that Congress definitely should investigate," Rep. Rohrabacher, R-California, Chairman of the House subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, told ABC News.
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, called for the hearing Wednesday, telling ABC News he was "furious and sad" after watching the "20/20" report.
I hope this goes somewhere. Not just for the Peace Corps victims of rape and assault; for the current female volunteers who are at risk and live in fear; for the Peace Corps wannabes who believe in the idea of international understanding and cooperation as promoted by President John F. Kennedy when he established the program; or for my daughter.
I hope this goes somewhere because just like the women who serve in the military, the women who serve in the Peace Corps deserve our utmost protection from rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. If it's happening, we need to stop it. If it's being covered up, we need to find and expose examples. And if we want more women to sign up, we have to make sure they know all the facts, not just what looks and sounds good.
I hope the Congressional hearings move forward. I hope the Peace Corps makes the necessary changes to protect every single volunteer, female and male alike. In two years, I hope -- no, I want and expect -- to send my daughter off to the Peace Corps with pride. And without the slightest bit of hesitation on her part...or mine.
Related article: Rape & Sexual Assault in the Peace Corps - Are Women Safe?