August 6, 2002 - Daily Texas Online: Peace Corps volunteer safety questioned in recent study

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Peace Corps volunteer safety questioned in recent study

Peace Corps volunteer safety questioned in recent study

Peace Corps volunteer safety questioned in recent study

By Patrick Timmons (Daily Texan Staff)

August 06, 2002

The Peace Corps' security procedures have come under scrutiny recently in a report prepared by the General Accounting Office.

The University sends about 70 volunteers to work for the Peace Corps each year and is ranked fourth in the country in terms of numbers of volunteers sent.

U.S. Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., requested the report after one of his constituents, 23-year old Walter Poirier of Lowell, Mass., disappeared without a trace from the Zongo Valley in Bolivia in February 2001.

Bill McCann, Meehan's chief of staff, said the Peace Corps in Bolivia only discovered Poirier was missing after his mother contacted the Bolivian Peace Corps' office to tell them she had lost contact with her son, who lived in an isolated region. Meehan became involved because Poirier's mother was dissatisfied with the Peace Corps' efforts to locate her son.

McCann said the Bolivia Peace Corps staff attributed Poirier's disappearance to an "unannounced vacation."

Meehan responded by requesting a two-part investigation. The first concerned Poirier's disappearance, which is still unexplained.

The second investigation reviewed Peace Corps' security procedures and found that major physical assaults against volunteers have nearly doubled since 1990. An average of nine major physical assaults per 1,000 volunteers occurred from 1991 to 1993 compared to an average of about 17 per 1,000 in 1998 to 2000. Four Peace Corps volunteers have died since 1997. There have been over 150 rapes of volunteers since 1990.

More than 60 percent of Peace Corps volunteers are female, according to the GAO's report.

Beverley Miller, an Austin resident who volunteered in Kazakhstan, said from her experience, the Peace Corps "errs on safety."

Miller said she asked Peace Corps to place her with other volunteers.

"I would not want to be sent to a place alone," Miller said.

McCann said the report suggests that the Peace Corps can improve its program by providing specific instructions for volunteers. The GAO report found about 25 percent of volunteers arrive in communities with no specific mandate.

Jerry Wilcox, director of the University's International Office, served as a volunteer in Thailand.

"It doesn't surprise me that the Peace Corps doesn't have daily contact with volunteers," Wilcox said. "That's not the design of [the program]."

Part of the Peace Corps mission is to intergrate volunteers into communities where those volunteers' particular skills will be an asset.

Wilcox said the Peace Corps relies on a "volunteer's creativity and judgment to make them safe."

"I always felt completely safe, and the Peace Corps had our safety in mind," said Melissa Quackenbush, a UT Psychology graduate who volunteered in Sri Lanka from 1994 to 1996.

In her first year, Quackenbush lived with another Peace Corps volunteer. In her second year she moved locations and lived alone. But she said she had a "good network of friends" in her community whom she felt looked out for her best interests.

Jim Maxwell, a volunteer in India in the late 1960s who now lives in Austin, said the Peace Corps has improved its training over the years. Now, unlike the '60s, the Peace Corps has three months of in-country training and rigorous language programs.

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Story Source: Daily Texas Online

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Safety and Security of Volunteers



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