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Rape, Sexual Assault of Women in the Peace Corps - Are Women Safe? Part 2

Long Before ABC News Investigation, Dayton Daily News Revealed Similar Findings

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Although the ABC News story has received national attention, it is not the first in-depth investigation into the underreported incidence of rape, sexual assault, and murder in the Peace Corps.

On October 26, 2003, the Dayton Daily News published an article its reporters had researched for nearly two years. Combing through thousands of records on assaults on PCVs over four decades, the News staff also found stories of rape, violence, and death.

In El Salvador on Christmas night 1996, Diana Gilmour was forced to watch the gang-rape of two female PCVs on a lonely stretch of beach; Gilmour was subsequently raped by a man holding a gun. Seven months later, those same two female PCVs were attacked yet again, this time in Guatemala City, walking home from a downtown movie theatre. While one woman managed to get away, the other was gang raped with a T-shirt pulled over her head and a pistol shoved in her mouth. The twice-violated victim was only 25 years old.

Within two months, three other female PCVs in Guatemala stepped forward to report they'd been raped as well.

According to the Dayton Daily News:

[Y]oung Americans - many just out of college and the majority of them women - are put in danger by fundamental practices of the Peace Corps that have remained unchanged for decades.

Though many volunteers have little or no experience traveling outside the United States, minimum language skills and virtually no background in their assigned jobs, they are sent to live alone in remote areas of some of the world's most dangerous countries and left unsupervised for months at a time.

In 62 percent of the more than 2,900 assault cases since 1990, the victim was identified as being alone....In 59 percent of assault cases, the victim was identified as a woman in her 20s.

Interviewing more than 500 people in 11 countries, the paper's reporters heard many gut-wrenching first-hand accounts from frightened young women:
"I am ready to go home. I don't like living in fear every single day," said Michelle Ervin of Buckeye Lake, Ohio, a 1998 University of Dayton graduate who was 25 when the Daily News visited her in the African country of Cape Verde in the summer of 2002. "Every day, I walk out of my house wondering who is going to rob me."
Similar to the ABC News investigation, the Dayton Daily News article revealed a culture within the Peace Corps that deliberately downplays any incident that might tarnish its reputation:
The extent of the dangers faced by volunteers has been disguised for years, partly because the attacks occur thousands of miles away, partly because the agency has made little effort to publicize them, and partly because it has deliberately kept some people from finding out - while emphasizing the positive aspects of Peace Corps service.

Two top agency officials overseeing security over the last 12 years said they warned the Peace Corps about increased dangers to volunteers, but many of their concerns were ignored.

"Nobody wanted to talk about security. It suppresses the recruitment numbers," said Michael O'Neill, the Peace Corps' security director from 1995 to August 2002.

When asked by the Dayton Daily News about the rise in sexual assault numbers, Peace Corps Director Gaddi H. Vasquez claimed that recent statistics indicated those numbers were in decline. That was in 2003.

In January 2011, when asked by ABC News reporter Brian Ross about the rapes and alleged coverups, Peace Corps deputy director Carrie Hessler-Radelet denied her agency had participated in anything of the sort. In response to Smochek's claims, Hessler-Radelet stated that she was new to the position and unaware of Jess Smochek's story. Just as Vasquez had done in 2003, Peace Corps officials in 2011 claimed that the number of rapes had been in decline.

Rape and sexual assault are not the only threats facing women in the Peace Corps. The murders of Kate Puzey in 2009 and Deborah Gardner in 1976, and the unexplained death of Stephanie Chance in 2010, are not the types of volunteer stories the Peace Corps wants associated with its image. The fact that Gardner's murderer was a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer who never served time for the crime -- and was given an exemplary rating for his service by the Peace Corps -- led New York writer Philip Weiss to dig further into the tragedy. Although his 2004 book American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps brought Gardner's decades-old story to light, the Peace Corps failed to hold Gardner's killer accountable, even when the agency's many missteps in the matter were uncovered.

Despite these incidents, the Peace Corp has retained its nostalgic JFK-era aura of idealism and service and continues to attract eager new recruits. The agency receives 10,000 applications annually, sends out between 3500 and 4000 volunteers to work in over 70 countries around the world, and will celebrate its 50th anniversary in March 2011.

Sources:

Carollo, Russell and Mei-Ling Hopgood. "Mission of sacrifice: Peace Corps volunteers face injury, death in foreign lands." Dayton Daily News, daytondailynews.com. 26 October 2003.

Krajicek, David. "Murder in the Peace Corps." TruTV Crime Library, trutv.com. Retrieved 28 January 2011.

"Safety of the Volunteer 2009: Annual Report of Volunteer Safety." Peace Corps, peacecorps.gov. December 2010.

Schecter, Anna. "Congress to Investigate Peace Corps Treatment of Sex Assault Victims." ABC News The Blotter, ABCNews.go.com. 27 January 2011.

Schecter, Anna. "What Killed Stephanie Chance?" ABC News The Blotter, ABCNews.go.com. 20 January 2011.

Schecter, Anna and Brian Ross. "Peace Corps Gang Rape: Volunteer Says U.S. Agency Ignored Warnings." ABC New The Blotter, ABCNews.go.com. 12 January 2011.

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