|By Kumbayah on Monday, July 21, 2003 - 1:30 am: Edit Post|
At a recent campus Peace Corps session, I heard all the currant recruiting promises: housing, living allowance, medical insurance, readjustment allowance, and the standard response to a question about safety, "I hate to say it, but volunteers who are attacked are usually doing something they aren't supposed to do." No mention was made of attrition rates or riding political tigers.
I was administratively separated after reporting an assault at the house where I was supposed to live. "I expect people to touch you," the country director told me.
Here is the reality. Forms and procedures for reporting incidents were unknown in our office until a departing volunteer found an incident report form and personally distributed copies to volunteers. Although the embassy is supposed to receive copies of the reports, they usually disappear before they get that far.
When retribution for reporting incidents became an issue, one medical officer devised a system for submitting anonymous reports. Before making a trip stateside, she also solicited reports to be hand delivered by her to the D.C. office.
Several volunteers were forced to ET because the office would not address safety issues at specific sites. These were usually vlunteers who did not come from wealthy or influential families. The problem was then fixed before the arrival of the next volunteer. None of the departing volunteers had a chance to submit a quarterly report (which I understand is read by other agencies) before leaving the country.
One volunteer who used her quarterly report to document her attempts to get housing safety problems addressed by the staff was hounded for the length of her stay. Among other things, they claimed she had moved without notifying them, but she was able to produce her copy of the memo informing them of her new location and prove they had acted on other items on the same memo.
The Peace Corps uses adminstrative separation and forced ET's to solve administrative problems that the individual volunteer has little control over. Yet the readjustment allowance is based on length of service, not on the cost of re-entry. It is the volunteer's family that bears the brunt of the cost. Somehow it is only the volunteers without wealthy families who are forced to bear this cost.
Obviously my family had to help me on my return, even though they didn't support my decision to volunteer. When I was still out of the country after 9/11 my mother had a major heart attack. Finally my grandfather's farm was sold and my mother offered her part of the inheritance to help me come back and get resettled. My dad E-mailed me, "We will not abandon you."
Although the Peace Corps tries to recruit older volunteers, medical services (which we seem to need more of as we get older) are worse for volunteers than for HCN's. One volunteer with a documented need for a medical accommodation (costing about $50 locally) could not get the accommodation until after the three-month training period. Routine perscription medications were not available to volunteers until six months into service or longer, although most were available at a lower cost locally or could be received by diplomatic pouch in less than a month. One volunteer stopped taking her cardiac and bladder control medication for the six months, with visible results. Vitamins and cough syrup is available in the office, but they don't tell the volunteers. Tampax are not available in the office, although they are hard to find in country and best purchased in a neighborhood where no one knows you.
Medical officers ignored major syptoms, even after repeated contacts. Discussions with doctors were not conducted in English. Medical officers expected volunteers to come into the office, but volunteers could not get reimbursed for transportation expenses. Some volunteers, defying regulations, preferred to use a local doctor at their own expense.
On one occasion, when I was no longer a volunteer, I used the local public health system to get scorpion anti-venom free of charge. If I had still been a volunteer I would have had to make my way into the capitol for approved treatment, although most scorpion bites occur at night when there is no public transportation.
Some volunteeers were threatened with withholding their living allowances, or had their allowances "accidently" not deposited. The house where I was attacked is still being shown to new volunteers as an approved place to live.
What are the cultural messages we try to send to other nations? That we are a nation of law, that individuals have rights, that our democracy has a system of checks and balances that prevents tyranny, that our institutions are accountable, that our justice is not just for the elite, that personal and tribal vengence is not the answer, that women can have dignity and be protected without covering themselves from head to toe in public? What message did my village get?
I have purposely not named myself or my host country, because what happened to me can happen to any volunteer in any country, and is probably happening to someone right now. What are we going to do about it?