Peace Corps rape victims still keep quiet
By Stewart M. Powell
Peace Corps volunteer Christine Carcano kept her first rape secret from the agency in 2011 until chronic illness forced her to travel to Peru's capital for medical tests that determined she was pregnant from the attack.
Fellow volunteer Mary Kate Shannon kept the Peace Corps in the dark about her second rape in Peru in 2012 because she didn't want to relive the criminal trial that landed her first attacker in prison for 28 years.
Carcano and Shannon are among many Peace Corps volunteers who initially kept rapes and sexual attacks quiet - 18 months after the celebrated agency, the brainchild of John F. Kennedy, began top-to-bottom changes to bolster protection for volunteers and make it easier for victims to step forward.
Peace Corps volunteers reported at least 225 rapes and 856 sexual assaults during the decade ending in 2012, according to annual reports to Congress.
But volunteers privately acknowledge far more attacks. Only half of the 23 volunteers who privately reported being raped last year, for example, officially reported those attacks to superiors, according to confidential surveys of returning volunteers.
Nor did volunteers officially report 71 percent of 801 other sexual assaults that came to light in the survey.
"Volunteers are remaining silent despite the changes," says Karestan Koenen, a trauma psychology scholar at Columbia University who has been studying the impact of Peace Corps reforms.
Volunteers "are afraid of being sent home or losing confidentiality," adds Koenen, who was raped in the African nation of Niger during Peace Corps service in 1991.
The Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act was enacted in 2011 after volunteers told Congress harrowing accounts of sexual assaults overseas compounded by bureaucratic neglect or insensitivity at home.
The Peace Corps says it has made "considerable progress" implementing provisions named for a 24-year-old volunteer killed in Benin after reporting that a local Peace Corps hire was abusing children at a school.
Rape victims now have one full-time advocate at headquarters, with two more to be hired. A dozen other changes are in progress, overhauling a bureaucracy that critics claimed had sometimes put good relations with host countries ahead of victims or aggressive prosecution of attackers.
Nearly 70 current or returned volunteers have received support over the past 23 months from Peace Corps' victim advocate Kellie Greene following a rape or attempted rape.
"Peace Corps has come a long way in a short amount of time," said Greene, who became a nationally known victims' advocate after being raped in Florida in 1994. "We all know silence around this crime is really what allows it to continue."
Volunteers in seven countries already have anonymous access to a 24-hour hotline for sexual assault victims that is scheduled to go global in September. Arrangements are under way, as well, to enable volunteers to confidentially report sexual assaults. The Peace Corps is paying attorney fees and court costs for volunteers who choose to help local authorities prosecute their attackers.
The agency has made "substantial progress over the last few years in establishing new policies and practices that reflect our strong commitment to reducing risks for our volunteers and responding effectively and compassionately to those who are victims of sexual assault," says Shira Kramer, Peace Corps spokeswoman.
But a coalition of former volunteers who suffered sexual assaults before the changes insist the agency "has a significant amount of work left to do." One in eight volunteers "reported being sexually assaulted in 2012 a jump in sexual assault rates from previous years," said First Response Action.
Carcano returned to a new location in Peru in 2012 - only to be raped again in an attack that ended her long-planned Peace Corps' service.
"I have not witnessed any solid changes in security since Christine's experiences," says Tymon Manning, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer in Peru. "Peace Corps gives us advice and tips on how to protect ourselves and avoid unwanted situations, but we are largely left to fend for ourselves in our day-to-day lives."
The Peace Corps, which has ended operations in 17 countries over the past decade due to security concerns, has dispersed nearly 8,100 volunteers to hundreds of remote locations in 76 countries in 2013 to answer Kennedy's call to help poor countries develop, help foreigners understand Americans and help Americans understand foreigners.
Yet despite the risks, many Peace Corps cherish their service, usually 27 months on a living allowance followed by a $7,425 transition payment.
"I was determined to go back to Peru after the first attack," recalls Carcano, an HIV social research assistant at the University of North Carolina's division of infectious diseases with plans to attend medical school. "I loved being a volunteer."
(To read original article, visit this San Francisco Chronicle link)