In the news: Peace Corps Volunteers speak out on rape

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, one of very few long-standing volunteer programmes. Over the years, the Peace Corps has fought to remain relevant, despite constantly facing the prospect of its funds being slashed.

Earlier today, The New York Times published a story ‘ Peace Corps Volunteers speak out on rape‘, drawing attention to the number of women who’ve been raped while volunteering around the world. The story highlights the unsympathetic response of Peace Corps administrators, when women have returned to America and shared their experiences.

There are several points of discussion from this news story,  at least from my point of view. First, yes, volunteers do face the risk of rape and sexual assault when working in countries they are unfamiliar with, where they don’t speak the language or know their way around. Then again, they also face several of these dangers no matter where they are, even at home. Secondly, the response of the administrators is a predictable one – women interviewed for this story have reported being made to feel guilty and ashamed. These women speak of the strong ‘blame the victim’ culture prevalent at the Peace Corps.

But most of all, this story illustrates the inadequate training  on sexual violence around the world. Women – indeed all volunteers – must be trained to protect themselves from assault, to respond to violence and to deal with the consequences. Administrators need training to learn the right skills and attitudes in responding to such situations. Local coordinators need training on how to respond in emergency situations, how to access health care and treatment.

At present, it does appear that while sexual assault is included in the initial induction period in the Peace Corps, there is excessive emphasis on the linkages between sexual violence and alcoholism. To paraphrase, the dictum appears to be, ‘don’t get drunk or you might get raped or attacked’.

India does not have a parallel volunteer organisation but the story remains the same. The Police, the army, health care organisations, corporate groups – few institutions offer adequate training on sexual violence. And this remains our biggest challenge. We can organise several one-off workshops, roundtables, seminars. We can talk about this issue endlessly. But how can we get organisations to commit to putting the issue of sexual and gender violence on the table for discussion?

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