Reaction to ABC’s 20/20 Peace Corps Report

This morning, I woke up to a link in my Inbox to 20/20’s 3-part report on the Peace Corps. The piece discusses the lack of proper support and response to the murder of Kate Puzey and later a segment of women who were sexually assaulted and/or raped during their service. I was extremely saddened by this report and can definitely understand the anger and frustration these women have toward the Peace Corps. However, while I am glad the report has raised issues of mismanagement within the organization, it also took away so many positive aspects of what it stands for. Most people already only have a vague idea of what the Peace Corps is about, and a report as such aired on national television will only drive people away further.
If you ask anyone from my Peace Corps training group, they will tell you that I was one of the most critical individual toward Peace Corps Admin. in the beginning of my service. I did not always love the Peace Corps and want everyone to sign up. Coming from a business background, I was astounded by various levels of inefficiency. I complained about the language training, the ridiculous rules, the lack of support on projects, the inefficient disbursement of our living allowances, and the list went on and on. I think some of my PC friends are surprised that today I’m one of the biggest advocates.

What changed my attitude? Well, my two years of living in the country. I associated very little of myself with Peace Corps during the first year. I spent a lot of time with French and volunteers of other nationalities. Through them, I realized that Peace Corps actually take care of us really well. My French friends were envious of our health care access, and sometimes made fun of our overly stringent security rules. When I complained about inefficiency, they gave me their stories that were much worse. I realized these complaints are simply the realities of large organizations, especially within a developing country.

Peace Corps is a large organization that currently operates in 77 countries with over 8,500 volunteers serving. You can imagine the level of bureaucracy that takes place; furthermore, it is a government agency, so inefficiency is unfortunately inherent. When we get frustrated, we often don’t know who to blame, so we blame “the Peace Corps”. But when it comes down to it, like any large-scale organization, problems cannot be generalized across the board. It is also important to remember that Peace Corps hires a lot of HCNs (Host Country Nationals) and there are usually a lot of bureaucracy involved in these countries (definitely the case in Cameroon). Firing bad employees is often very difficult and has to be handle extremely delicately (as in Kate’s case).

Within a country, the County Director (CD) has the most authority and is the person that decides on how situations are handled. While in Cameroon, I experienced two different country directors and there were stark changes among staff and the general operations of Peace Corps Cameroon. I experienced a serious security incident with other volunteers and I was thoroughly impressed with the way things were handled. We agreed the situation would’ve been dealt with much differently under the previous Country Director. This all lead me to believe that poor management of unfortunate incidents as discussed in the 20/20 report were due to inadequate leadership within these Peace Corps countries.

While it is important that these management issues are addressed and the pressure is put on the Agency to improve and change its policies, I have an incredibly difficult time dealing with these very negative image that this report portrays on the Peace Corps experience. To an average American who knew little of the Peace Corps before, they now will think, “oh, you are going to go live in a hut in the middle of no where with no resources AND you will probably get raped and killed? That’s insane. No thanks.”

The reality is, Peace Corps takes safety and security extremely seriously. So much so, we often felt like we were being over-protected. Before we even get on the plane, we went through sessions where we were made aware of cases of robbery, rape, and various unfortunate events. Peace Corps gave us the statistics that were definitely downright frightening to a group of people who had little idea on what they were getting themselves into. Throughout our training and the rest of our service, safety and security were top priority and measures were taken in every way possible.

In Cameroon, it was mandatory to always wear a helmet when taking a moto bike, to always report your whereabouts, to avoid being out alone at night, to not travel to designated dangerous areas of the country, etc. For a group of mostly 20-somethings, we found the rules absurd. We hated being told what to do. Once we became integrated into our communities, we got comfortable and trusted people in our community and thus let our guards down. Through two years of living there, I realize one big part about the experience is finding the right balance between too much trust vs. not being open enough while living among a culture of people so incredibly different from me.

One joins the Peace Corps knowing that anything can happen – there is no guarantee. I am deeply sorry for those volunteers who have experienced much worse incidents and have not received proper support. There are no excuses for the lack of support and poor handling of situations by the Peace Corps. The Agency should have used this opportunity to do some damage control and apologize. Despite all of my frustration with the organization during my service, I am proud to have been a Peace Corps Volunteer and would do it over again. I can’t stress enough that these extreme experiences and grossly inadequate support only happen to a small percentage of volunteers. There are so many extremely positive factors that go into the Peace Corps experience and this report in no way accurately represents what most of us experience. I think it’s important for the general public to realize this.

To end, I present you with the current Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams’ response to the report.

32 thoughts on “Reaction to ABC’s 20/20 Peace Corps Report

  1. The PC rep on 20/20 did an extremely poor job. She made it very clear that her bureaucracy was more important than even proper empathy for this woman's parents. Her reactions just served to prove the allegations true. Think and reflect about your service as a PCV and interactions with PC Admin. Was PC Admin over-protective of you because they cared about you? Or because they were trying to make you follow the strict bureaucratic rules? You are right about the Country Directors. I also had a bad one and then a good one. I also encountered one in a neighboring country who was supposedly bad, and learned that he was hyper-sensitive about PCV safety. It seems that there is somewhat of an awareness of the nature of this issue as if it can really ruin your career in PC Admin if you screw up on a safety issue, and that turns the bureaucracy into overdrive. It seems to be a self-fulfilling cycle.

    • I agree that the PC representative did not really help the situation. She did not come off as very sympathetic and could have definitely used some coaching on admitting PC's faults and emphasize on positive aspects of a volunteer experience. This is certainly one of those situations that highlights the importance of PR skills.
      The overprotective-ness definitely backfired often. We often did not report incidents because of the reputation of how a particular country director would handle it. It's often not worth the trouble.

  2. The stunning thing I learned from that report was that over 1000 female volunteers have been sexually assaulted or raped over the past decade. That is an enormous amount and yet I, and I suspect most other, have heard about it. The administration had successfully just swept it under the carpet. This is completely shameful and, indeed, is dangerous to the well being of future female volunteer – as in suggesting to the bad guys that if you rape our women, we will not make a fuss and will hush it up for you. The appropriate response should be exactly the opposite – a timely and forceful, loud response to the host nation that such thing will not be tolerated. None of this "we cannot comment since it is still under investigation" … over 2 years latter! Shame on the Peace Corp bureaucrats! What kind of organization is that that will let over 1,000 Americans girls to be sexually abused or raped ????? Shame, shame, shame.

    • I think it's really important to consider the environment that we as volunteers serve in. In any developing country, the risk of these incidents (rape, sexual assault, robbery, violence, etc.) increase infinitely. And as volunteers, we aren't living on military bases. We are alone in the field. These factors all contribute to the higher ratio. The problem here is less that these incidents are unknown, but rather how the victims are treated post the incident. I as a woman, certainly wouldn't want the world to know I was raped if such unfortunate event were to happen to me. And this further highlights the courage of the women who shared their story on 20/20. I am sure all of the women would much rather have received proper care and counseling rather than having to share such stories on national television.

      • Great point, Wendy – I think that the Peace Corps actually does a good job of preparing volunteers for how to avoid danger and to think twice before doing things that could but you at a higher risk for sexual assault or violence. Peace Corps also does security checks of potential volunteer sites before sending volunteers there – and avoids sending volunteers to places with heightened political tensions for example. It is impossible to blame Peace Corps for the actions of rapists. What I think Peace Corps really needs to focus on is how it deals with the mental effects of being assaulted. There is a lot of support in place for people with physical ailments but mental health resources are less available. That was highlighted in the 20/20 report, but I think that it was not the main point and that is really the issue.

    • Leo: Based on the most recent data available, a woman in the United States is sexually assaulted every two minutes (248,300 women were raped in the US in 2007 alone)…shocking, right? Believe me, as a sexual assault counselor, I am shocked and heartbroken every single day by the violence people are capable of. But the media (and I wrote for my college newspaper so I’m not a media-hating cynic here!) often uses numbers and statistics to benefit their programs. I agree that the number of sexually assaulted volunteers is absolutely horrible, but I really think that the focus here should be on the lack of support that the Peace Corps seems to offer its volunteers. The thing that should be truly shocking or “stunning” to everyone here is the shameless victim blaming used against Jess Smochek. I mean, I would really love to know whose brilliant idea it was to force a GANG RAPE VICTIM to write a report about what SHE did wrong and what SHE could do to prevent it from happening again. I think I would have to personally see to it that THAT person lost his/her job…then make him/her write me a report about it.

      • Since this is an imperfect world, bad things happen despite of precautions. What differentiate a winning organization from a loser is the way they respond when bad things happened. While I would not necessary want the Peace Corp to react in the way what I expect the Marines will do, I would hope they will at least loudly and forcefully inform the host country assaulting our volunteers will not be tolerated instead of hushing thing up (or 'investigating' for years). In order to make the country directors accountable, I would like to see their tenures to be a function of reviews by volunteers that had just finished their tours. If a high percentage of the voluteers say a director sucks, he or she should be let go. After all, they are there to SERVE the volunteers and not the other way around!

  3. "That is an enormous amount and yet I, and I suspect most other, have heard about it." … I mean "I suspect most others have NOT heard about it before"

  4. I'm currently serving in West Africa and this case is never far from anyone's mind, especially when weighing the worth's of reporting incidents that involve HCNs. It eats at me every single day that I have children being molested in my schools and feel like I can't say anything about it for fear of backlash or, obviously, worse. Kate was well-integrated in her community, had that 'wall' of protection, but in the end, in this culture, murder for the sake of reputation isn't out of the question. I think the real issue at hand here, though, is how PC handled the aftermath. They get an F. Sometimes you just need to fall on your sword, even if you can't directly pinpoint the mistake. This report painted PC in a very negative light, yes, but that rep didn't help matters any.

    And on another point, the statistics in this report are so misleading. One thousand volunteers, over ten years. That's 100 per year out of several thousand volunteers in the field. But lets not forget that these are developing countries where foreigners are a target for any sort of crime.

    I think the crimes and sensationalism of the events surrounding them highly overshadowed the inadequate responses by the PC country and national offices. And I hate to even bring this up but I feel like it has to be said. If someone feels like they are in SO much danger, and PC is ignoring their pleas, LEAVE. No one is or has ever forced them to be in that position. Peace Corps is and will remain until the end a voluntary organization.

    • I totally agree with you. If a volunteer feels unsafe, they always have the choice to leave. The trouble is that most of us fall in love with our communities and we can't imagine leaving. For me personally, my worst incident occurred when I was most comfortable and thus let my guard down the most. I think like all things, it's all about balance. Playing whistle blower as a PCV in the countries that we work in is extremely dangerous. For that reason, sometimes, we bite our time for the sake of the bigger picture. It's not an easy thing to balance knowing so much suffering is going on. Determing how far to go in our roles as volunteers is one of the most difficult tasks.

      • Not to be so all over this topic, but I just wanted to respond to this too!

        Telling a volunteer they have the choice to feel unsafe or leave is NOT a choice (wow, by the way!!). A volunteer should definitely be aware of the risks, but should expect to feel relatively safe under the care and guidance of the Peace Corps. If a PC volunteer like Jess Smochek gets attacked on her first day in broad daylight, before even having arrived to the host site, this is not a safe environment for her! The PC should offer volunteers the opportunity to continue their service elsewhere if they feel unsafe. If your volunteer organization is “ignoring [your] pleas” and thinks that’s OK, there is something very VERY wrong!!

        • Thanks for your commens, Sandy! As I discussed in the Post, not all Peace Corps countries are created equal. Some country simply has poor leadership and it's unrealistic to expect stellar management across all PC countries. If a volunteer feels unsafe and administration doesn't respond promptly, what choice does he/she have but to leave? Within a govt agency, to change takes time. And when it comes to life and death matters, volunteers unfortunately have to choose.
          In an ideal world, we want volunteers to feel that the Peace Corps would provide a completely safe environment where they serve. However, that is unrealistic given the locations that we serve. We are just as likely to get attacked on our first day in country as our last. Sometimes, it's a bit of luck. Unfortunately, getting groped and being treated less than respectfully is simply the cruel reality of being a female PCV. It's not ideal, but it's part of the culture where most of us serve.

        • Rpcv here. This 20/20 report was irresponsible at best. There was no indication of what Jess was told. All 20/20 said was "you asked for reassignment?" "yes" "and you were denied?" "yes".

          This tells us nothing. Reassignment, as we know, may mean going back to the states and waiting for a spot. There aren't 50 spots and only 10 volunteers in country. If pc said "we don't care. Stay where you are." That's totally one thing

          If they said "here are your options (and they both suck) you can either et or stay" that's another. Neither choice is great but it is a choice.

  5. In order to make the country directors accountable, I would like to see their tenures to be a function of reviews by volunteers that had just finished their tours. If a high percentage of the voluteers say a director sucks, he or she should be let go. After all, the directors are there to SERVE the volunteers and not the other way around!

  6. I did some more research and based on the very detailed stats and analysis published by the Peace Corp, well before the showing of 20/20 program, and come to the conclsuion that the program have been sensationalized.

    http://multimedia.peacecorps.gov/multimedia/pdf/p

    The more than 1,000 sexual assaults comes down to roughly 100 per 4,400 female voluteers per year.

    In 2008, of the 128 cases, 88 are in the less serious category including getting groped (mostly in transportations).

    Of the 22 cases of rape or attempted rape, again out of a female volunteer population of roughly 4,500, the report claims "Frequently committed by friend/acquaintance of the Volunteer" and "In most rapes, the offender is not arrested and the Volunteer does not intend to prosecute if the offender is apprehended."

    While the stats mean nothing if you are the victim, I suspect the percentage of incidences is lower than the general population for a given country due to training, offset by the voluteers making more attractive targets.

    Despite of the above, the Peace Corp owes Jess Smochek more than an apology.

  7. True, volunteers can leave if they feel unsafe in an environment, but it takes a brave person to stay and do the right thing. Kate risked her safety to help innocent young girls while the Peace Corps turned the other way. If they've swept so many attacks on these volunteers under the rug they are obviously indifferent and should be held accountable for not taking any action.

  8. This was an excellent report on the shameful behavior of the Peace Corp. If parents and volunteers are fully aware of the potential personal cost and the lack of common sense protections available to women generally , then the recruiting would justifiably crater.

    Bravo to ABC's 20/20 and these women for coming forward and with a lot of courage and dignity informing the nation as to how corrupt the PC is in protecting young people while doing international service with such love.

  9. Wendy,
    Thank you for your balanced view on this issue. Of course what happened to these people is horrible, but 20/20 did everyone a disservice by not reporting a balanced story. They interviewed the Deputy Director for almost 2 hours yet only showed 4 minutes of her interview. They also interviewed two RPCVs who had both been sexually assaulted and had positive support from Peace Corps, yet they never showed even a snippet of those interviews. I wish 20/20 would have balanced the story so that the victims could have a voice and the Peace Corps would have the chance to work on its policies. Instead, people will only listen to the 'awful' side and those young people who are willing to go and make a difference might change their minds. It is a losing situation for all involved and as an RPCV who had a very positive experience I am deeply saddened.

  10. I had not heard about this report until, the passing of Sargent Shriver today. I watched the report, and then read this response. I agree with Wendy that this point painted all of Peace Corps in an unfairly negative light. These are certainly all very heartbreaking stories, and I would guess that in all cases, mistakes in PC protocol were in fact made by PC admin either before or after the incidents. I also agree that Peace Corps should own up and take that responsibility, beyond it being the right thing to do, PC would come off much better in doing so.

    That being said, I'd like to say that in my experience I never had a doubt in my mind the length PC would go to keep me safe. Aside from all the training, the rules, and the precautions we were advised to take, I witnessed PC in action on multiple occaisions. In my two years, three volunteers were airlifted out by helicopter or private plane to recieve medical care, both with life threatening illness, both returned to finish there service. Others were collected from site with police escorted caravans. My service was ended early due to political instabily. Even before there was any threat of violence to volunteers, PC made the right decision, collected us all at site, one by one, and drove us out. Days later, when all 100+ volunteers were safely in an alternate location, violence erupted, and we were left to worry helplessly about our friends and loved ones in our host country. PC handled the situation quickly and efficiently, and with the safety of all volunteers as their primary concern.

  11. I am so saddened and disturbed by these reports. I am almost finished with my application but am having serious third thoughts (I've had previous doubts…). I mean this sort of thing is my worst fear even in the states where I have an alarm system in my home, carry mace, and run to my door from my car at night!

    Previous volunteers–what do you think? I know you are supporting PC but is this the right thing for someone as paranoid as me to get into??! I mean I've read other reports about people only seeing PC reps once a year and not having any way to contact them, being housed in terrible parts of town, and other horror stories… I'm terrified!

    • Honestly, in my opinion, Peace Corps is one of the safest organizations. In my host country (Moldova) the staff truly cares. There was a case where a volunteer was assaulted by a member of her host family and was taken to the Capital city and later moved sites. Like it says above, all countries are different. Just remember, bad things happen everywhere. About half of my female friends (7) were raped during the four years I was in college (not counting being assaulted). None of my friends have ever been raped during my almost two years here.

  12. Leo it's 1,000 women over the history of the peace corps. That's 50 years. Consider this: in an average year peace corps has had .002% reported rape; the u.s.military has 35% reported rape; u.s. Colleges has 60% reported rape.

  13. The cover-up of Katey's murder makes me ill and my heart goes out to her family who so loved her. However, I must say that when I was assaulted during my PC service, there was NO blame, and I received nothing but support from my APCD, CD, fellow volunteers, my host family, and the Washington office. I was given several options along with counseling. While PC does seem overprotective, they are aware of the risks the volunteers face, and are only trying to prevent tragedies from happening. If you think the US is the safest place on the planet for women, think again.

  14. Read 'Half the Sky'.It highlights the plight of women in the whole world. We are marginalized, everywhere to some degree.. Whether being raped/assaulted or trafficked/ or even in the 1st world, just being underpaid. It is the same. This is the burning issue of the century.
    Women need to be treated equally. We must make this change.

    I would advise my daughter's friend who is leaving for Africa next month to resign. I am defiantly going to send her my book, Half the Sky. And, I am going to write her a letter. She is an arrogant young women who tends to dismiss others advise.

    Ladies, don't ignore your gut feeling. Don't place your self in unnecessary danger. Use your head.

    • Thank you for your comment, Mrs. C. I agree with you that women are marginalized to some degree around the world. I would, however, like to remind you that by asking your daughter's friend to not go to Africa, you are taking away her opportunity to promote woman's right. Among many things that I did in Cameroon, I was able to show people that a young woman as myself, is just as capable as any man to do the jobs that I did. Danger is everywhere, and I would be very careful to discourage a young woman's pursuit without given careful considerations.

  15. I couldn't have said it better myself! After living in Niger (when Kate died), I realized that the incident was indeed the responsibility of the PC Benin Bureau. It may not have happened under a different director, or under different country circumstances. Bad things happen to people in Peace Corps, as they do to people in the states. I am glad to know RPCVs are here to stand for the positive Peace Corps experiences as well. Thanks!

  16. thanks for your comment. Sexual assault and security incidents ARE a big deal, there is nothing not big deal about it. I experienced a serious one, so I know what it is like. The point is that not all Peace Corps countries are created the same and I am simply trying to raise my hand and report that there ARE responsible and compassionate Country Directors who deal with incidents in a supportive manner.
    I believe the Peace Corps is taking steps to deal with this. I am as glad as anyone that the congressional hearing occurred and hopefully a beginning to major changes within the organization. What I am not glad, however, is all the people shouting negative comments about the Peace Corps as a whole without really understanding the situation in detail.

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