At 24, Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet was a volunteer teaching secondary school English in Western Samoa. She was also grappling with the decision of whether to report her own sexual assault — the assailant a prominent member of the community in which she worked.
“Being a model Peace Corps volunteer didn’t include being a victim,” she shared at a Peace Corps-organized event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., in recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Hessler-Radelet didn’t report the three instances of sexual assault, too afraid she would be removed from the community and the work she believed in. Looking back, she’s “baffled” by her decision to stay silent.
But it’s not all that surprising. The history of sexual assault within the 54-year-old agency is long, pockmarked with accusations of lack of support, shaming and finger pointing. So in 2013, as part of an ongoing, volunteer-centered shift in culture, Peace Corps adopted a global Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Response program to address the perception of silence and a culture of victim-blaming that has plagued the volunteer-sending organization.
The move to an organized program came after the 2011 passage of the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, in honor of the 24-year-old volunteer found dead after she reported her suspicions that a Peace Corps contractor was sexually harassing students at the school where she taught in Benin.
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More than a year after the program launch, the agency continues to face the same challenges making headlines at university campuses — and the same that the military has dealt with for decades, Hessler-Radelet pointed out — of creating a flexible framework for preventing and responding to sexual assault. And despite a 20 percent increase in sexual assault reports, the program is far from complete, both Peace Corps volunteers and current staff told Devex.
The SARRR program
The SARRR program aims to reduce risk by focusing on bystander intervention, establishing policies and practices to improve the quality of response and providing sexual assault training for staff, including training special responders.
All Peace Corps volunteers now receive bystander intervention training, a heightened form of safety instruction to equip them with the tools to look out for and help each other in uncomfortable or dangerous situations. This form of prevention is already reported as heavily used, a Peace Corps spokeswoman told Devex.
Another key change is that volunteers have a new option to report incidents, called restricted reporting, which strictly limits access to information about an assault to only those providing support services requested by the volunteer. The change seeks to empower volunteers to come forward by knowing who will have access to the sensitive information they share.
Volunteers also now have access to trained sexual assault response liaisons — local staff who have volunteered to take on this extra duty — at each post to accompany them through the in-country response process.
These three changes are wins for volunteers, according to one returned volunteer who was assaulted in May 2011, the same month that Peace Corps hired its first D.C.-based victim advocate.
The volunteer, who didn’t wish to be named, was medically evacuated to D.C. from her post in Kazakhstan, a solo 19-hour journey made while clutching a report of what had happened in a manila folder.
Now, volunteers have the option of naming someone to accompany them upon evacuation, or of traveling out of country with the sexual assault response coordinator, she explained.
The Peace Corps staffer who met her at the airport in D.C. didn't know why she had returned to the U.S. — and it was a male in a car, an unfortunately similar circumstance as that of her assault. The agency has since built an online case reporting system and designated staff to make sure communication is clear between in-country and D.C.-based staff for a smoother transition for those volunteers who head to the U.S. for care, she added.
These steps will make a huge difference for future victims of assault, the volunteer suggested. But the Peace Corps finds reason for optimism in a 20 percent increase in reporting of sexual assault incidents since fall 2013, when all overseas staff and volunteers were trained in the new services and policies.
Between 2012 and 2014, volunteer numbers dropped by about 1,000. The number of globally reported sexual assaults, on the other hand — including everything from unwanted touching to forced kissing to rape — jumped to 242 in 2014, up from 201 reported sexual assault victimizations in 2013. There were 176 reported sexual assault victimizations globally in 2012.
The agency expected reports of sexual assault to increase because of the extensive training put in place encouraging volunteers to come forward for help, and the increase in reports indicates that the program is working — that volunteers are now more aware and more comfortable seeking support and assistance from the agency, a Peace Corps spokeswoman told Devex.
But a recently returned Peace Corps volunteer in attendance at the CSIS meeting noted that trust breakdowns might still be leaving volunteers uneasy with the idea of reporting assault. She sensed a general lack of trust in her post between volunteers and staff, recalling a conversation between a staff member and a volunteer that should have been private, but that was conducted within earshot of other volunteers.
While the increase in sexual assault reporting is a positive signal, some gaps in trust appear to remain. Hessler-Radelet is the first to admit: “The culture change challenge at Peace Corps is not an issue that can be addressed overnight.”
The SARRR program gets graded
In the meantime, the Peace Corps has formed a Sexual Assault Advisory Council, comprised of multisector experts in sexual assault prevention and returned Peace Corps volunteers, which advises the agency on sexual assault policies, staffing, procedures and training for SARRR.
The council’s latest report, published in late 2014, touches on each of these aspects, with a focus on improvements in creating a victim-centered, “one size does not fit all” approach to its response. The report emphasizes that Peace Corps personnel responding to sexual assault must be flexible, adapt to unique circumstances, and “meet victims where they are.”
The report also suggested a “restricted plus” option, an additional level of limited information sharing that would allow volunteers who file a restricted report following sexual assault to change sites.
The council also pointed to staffing issues as a weak spot, and suggested the agency clearly delineate roles for the counseling and outreach unit and office of victim advocacy staff to tackle current confusion. The “fundamental role confusion” between the counseling and outreach unit and office of victim advocacy staff has led to resentment and mistrust among the staff and lack of clarity for victims, the report noted, adding that other organizations working through such role delineation have found it helpful to use an outside mediator.
“From my perspective, as someone who was assaulted and who was a volunteer in general, it was a little confusing about who to talk to,” noted the returned Peace Corps volunteer from Kazakhstan, who served as a volunteer voice on the council from 2012 to 2014.
There were gaps and overlaps in quality of service, she explained, not because of a lack of effort, but because “everyone who works there is there for the volunteers and sometimes they all want to help with the same thing.”
The council has a full agenda this year. Action items include an assessment of whether the SARRR’s monitoring and evaluation plan should be reviewed on an annual basis to determine relevance versus benefit, communication standards between Peace Corps staff and victim’s family members, an examination of the feasibility of the use of telemedicine for medical or forensic exams performed in-country and creation of standards for what volunteers and staff are allowed to discuss on social media regarding victims, among other items.
In the meantime, if volunteers feel any of their rights have been violated, Hessler-Radelet encouraged them to contact the inspector general or reach out to a victim advocate in Washington, D.C., rather than in their community or host country if they feel more comfortable doing so. She also mentioned the option for remediation if the volunteer is comfortable with staff going back to the person and addressing the issue.
For now, volunteers provide feedback to the agency in a number of ways, all of which factor into the monitoring, evaluation and continuous improvement of the SARRR program, the Peace Corps spokeswoman told Devex.
The agency surveys volunteers annually, and volunteers are asked to complete a survey at the end of their service to address a variety of topics, including their use of the bystander intervention training. All volunteers who report sexual assault also receive a survey that asks for feedback on the quality of the support they received.
The most promising part of this reform, the returned Kazakhstan Peace Corps volunteer told Devex, is that the agency is involving Peace Corps volunteers, victims or not, throughout the decision-making progress.
If the goal is to set systems in place, tweak and change as needed to support victims, then the agency is making progress; the uptick in use of bystander intervention and 20 percent increase in sexual assault reports can serve as proof. But it remains a small victory for a much bigger problem, one that isn’t the Peace Corps’ alone.
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