October 9, 2003 - Jane Magazine: "The Peace Corps Never Warned Me what I was Really in For"

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"The Peace Corps Never Warned Me what I was Really in For"

Jane Magazine runs story on Volunteer Safety

"Claudine Ko explores why women bail out of the program. Hint: It may have something to do with assault, forced medication, and parasites."

Read and comment on this article from the upcoming issue of "Jane Magazine" that highlights issues of Safety and Security for Volunteers. Jane advertises itself as a magazine that is "revolutionary, bold and edgy written by and for young women who know what they want and how to get it" and has a monthly circulation of 700,000.

Although USA Today ran an article on Volunteer Safety and Security two years ago, this is the first time we have seen Volunteer Safety addressed in a mass circulation magazine. Read the article and decide if it provide an accurate assessment of what volunteers should expect in the Peace Corps and leave your comments below at:

"The Peace Corps Never Warned Me what I was Really in For*

* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.

"The Peace Corps Never Warned Me what I was Really in For

Claudine Ko explores why women bail out of the program. Hint: It may have something to do with assault, forced medication, and parasites.

Jane Magazine * November 2003

"Before I left for the Peace Corps, I was enamored with my own benevolence," laughs Katy Backes, 25, who spent most of her life in northern Minnesota and North Dakota. "I thought I was really great for going." Three months into her assignment as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in Mozambique in 1999, reality set in. "Local men used to yell in Portuguese, 'White pussy, white pussy!'" she says. "The locals had a hard time understanding what a young foreign woman would be doing living alone. They know I got money somehow and they started to think that I was a prostitute. A lot of men on their way back from the bars would stop outside my house and holler, 'We know you want to come and party with us!'

"There was actually quite a bit of threatening of PCVs, but we weren't made aware of that before we left," Katy says. "A volunteer who's been living on my site had been robbed twice. The Peace Corps said it wasn't a problem - that a guard was going to start walking past my house. But the guard didn't show up." The harassment got so bad that Katy said she began calling her program's head office - located a 10 hour bus ride away. "I didn't feel like the Peace Corps believed me," she says. "They said, 'Everyone has problems at their site at first.' They thought maybe I was overreacting and suggested I see a psychologist."

Then eight months into her service, a local man showed up at Katy's classroom while she was teaching. "I told him he needed to go the administration building," she says. "That's when he pushed me very violently and started to hit me and rip my clothes, saying things about what I do at night, like, 'We know how you get your money.' I pushed him off and started yelling, 'Get out of here! Get out!' and then he went away. The kids looked ready to fall apart, so I straightened my clothes, swallowed my tears, and kept teaching."

Afterward, the Peace Corps gave Katy the option of leaving through "interrupted service" or choosing another country to serve in. "I didn't feel the problem was Mozambique," says Katy, who was part of only the second PCV group to enter the country post-civil war. "It was with the Peace Corps making a safe living environment, and they weren't actively changing my situation." Cassandra Champion, the organization's press person, says that while they are not familiar with that happened in Katy's case, a community will occasionally increase its own guard or police patrols when necessary and when asked. Ultimately, Katy decided to leave her 27-month program early, joining the nearly one-third of her fellow 6,678 volunteers worldwide who drop out.

It's another blistering hot afternoon in Tabanco, a shantytown of about 400 people in northern Peru's Sechura desert. Heather Frankland, a soft-spoken, blue-eyed 24-year-old, walks along a stretch of the Pan-American Highway dressed in a blue cardigan and matching tank top over loose woven pants and sandals. She is part of Peru One, a group of 26 PCVs (19 are female) who are the first here since Peru's military government axed the program in 1975 during and anti-U.S. backlash. Her job, technically, is to teach Tabanco's residents about health, like the importance of hand-washing and boiling water. Her secondary project is teaching English to the local children a few day as week.

Heather also spends much of her time going up and down the highway, stopping to socialize in people's homes. Eighteen-wheelers and buses roar past while passersby shout warm greetings to her, wave or honk their horns. Everybody in town knows who she is.

"Being the first group, we're more here to establish and meet people," she explains, noting that because Heather is difficult for many of the Peruvians to pronounce, she goes by Flor. "It's better that gringa," she says, smirking.

"I wanted to do something to help somebody," adds Heather, an incredibly earnest Indiana native who majored in English at Knox College, a small liberal arts school. "Just the fact that you are here in a community that has been neglected to some extent, you are doing something." Donkeys loiter around her quiet neighborhood, which is framed by sand dunes. Turkeys gobble.

"The first three months are really hard," Heather says.

"The Peace Corps tells you that. You have to speak Spanish all the time, and it's hard to see why we're here. Some days, you get homesick and just have to go to the city and get a Coke." Problem is, the closest groceries, Internet access, and Cokes are in Piura, a 90-minute bus ride away.

Many PCVs -61 percent of who are female- live on their own, but Peru's head office in Lima decided to have its volunteers stay with families for safety reasons and when it come to the women, also for "respectability". Heather lives with the Sandovals in their cozy mud-and-reed walled home. It has a tin roof and sand floors, plus no running water of electricity. It is one of the few houses with a solar panel, which powers a couple of fluorescent tubes, and every once in a while, a TV. She even keeps two pet cats in her sparsely decorated room, which is safeguarded by a wrought-iron gate and bars over the window. Her Peace Corps-issued cell phone beeps in the corners, signaling low battery power. The phones are a new effort to improve PCV safety. Unfortunately Heather says hers only works in Piura. If she needs help fast, like the time she passed out from a migraine, it's a 20-minute bike ride to the nearest working phone.

"The people here look after you," Heather says. "And we're a small group, so we have good contacts with our director, assistant director and nurse. The local men are macho, but I've never felt threatened. Still, I try to be careful."

The Peace Corps stresses that volunteer safety is the "No. 1 priority." However, Suerie Moon, 29, was a PCV in rural South Africa in 1999, where she was supposed to train teachers at the local school. She lived with the principal's family, and one night shortly after she arrived, a man tried to get into her bedroom. "The window was broken, so he could stick his arm through and open it," she recalls. "He had taken my bra, which was sitting on a chair near the window. Then I saw his head coming into the room and I freaked out and he went running off." She says that at first, her host family didn't believe her. "They said, 'You're having nightmares.'" Then the principals saw the man's footprints in the yard.

Since the Peace Corps s founding in 1961, 250 people have died during service- 40 fatal illnesses, 20 murders, 171 accidents, 15 suicides and four of undetermined causes. The most recent death was a 23-year-old man who hanged himself in Mali in July. From 1993 to 2002, there were 787 aggravated assaults and 134 rapes. Sueire says the risks she might encounter were never explained in her pre-departure information packet: "The staff knew that crime and rape were serious issues in South Africa, but I was totally not expecting it." (Cassandra says that this info is available to volunteers who ask, and safety issues are usually discussed once the volunteers reach their assigned country.) Suerie adds that female PCVs were harassed as soon as they arrived. But when she asked to be assigned to a village with a male PCV, she says, the Peace Corps wouldn't consider it. "They didn't find daily harassment to be a sufficient reason to change their plans. It was a steady stream of drop-outs - I was one of them."

"One girl got a big dog she took everywhere," Suerie remembers. "It was a decision she made in order to stay and feel safe. But there's a real trade-off - the apartheid government used dogs to attack and terrorize. You're trying to do community work, not stand out as some version of old apartheid police forces."

"If you leave, it's a sign of weakness that you can't handle pit latrines, insufficient sanitation, or not having a lot of money," continues Suerie, who now works for Doctors Without Borders. "I think it pushes people to stay longer than they want to or should. Here was this girl who literally fought off a local teacher who had a knife and was intent on raping her. She stayed." Suerie doesn't think that the Peace Corps is an evil institution, but wonders if they bring up safety concerns with their local counterparts. "It's embarrassing to say, "Our female volunteers are afraid of being raped by your nationals,'" she says.

"If the volunteer feels unsafe for any reason," Cassandra says, "the staff immediately work to resolve the situation, including moving the volunteer." Cassandra doesn't know the specifics of Suerie's circumstances, but notes, "Another volunteer close by does not necessarily create greater safety."

"My Stomach Always Hurts." Heather's host mom, Josefa, cooks the family meals over an open-flame stove constructed out of large, uneven bricks. Her kitchen looks like a diorama from a natural history museum exhibit on primitive living. Today's lunch is fried white rice with peas, steamed chicken and lemon-colored Kola Real. Behind Heather, an empty white casket, donated to the community for future use, is slowly being eaten by termites as it rests against the wall. A battery-operated radio plays cumbia, the popular local dance music.

When Josefa collects the dishes, Heather's meal is only half-eaten, which is part of the reason she's lost weight since arriving in Peru. "People in my community tell me that I'm thinner because of love (she has a phoneless Peruvian boyfriend back in Piura). I say, 'No. It's the parasites.'"

Posted on Heather's bedroom wall is a list she's made of problems and solutions. Grievance No, 10 is, "My stomach always hurts." Her fix? "Cook for yourself."

"You go to people's houses and want to gain their trust, so you eat what they give you," explain Heather. "I'm willing to eat anything to gain their confidence." The result is that she has had parasite four times. "It's funny - we're health volunteers, and we've had so many problems with our health."

While stomach issues are the biggest medical complaint, they're not the only ones. "Lots of people get depressed," says Judy Gerring, 26, who in 2001 was stationed 33 hours from her PC headquarters in Kazakhstan and was depressed for six months. "PCVs, feeling isolated and having trouble adjusting to a culture where drinking is a way of life, fell prey to alcohol abuse."

The Peace Corps also requires PCVs to take antimalarial drugs. Almost 80 percent of volunteers in Africa are in Lariam, even though its manufacturer warns that the drug's side effects can include psychotic episodes, paranoia, depression and suicidal thinking. "Some PCVs said, 'I'd rather stop taking it than go crazy.'" Suerie remembers. But the official Peace Corps line is, 'If you've stopped, we're shipping you home.'" The Peace Corps acknowledges Lariam's side effects and says it consults with volunteers to decide which antimalarial medication is appropriate.

"I Don't Want to be a Political Pawn"

At the top of Heather's problem/solution board is; "Not sure if I joined because I wanted to, or just to prove how good I actually am to peeps...I get bored, restless and unmotivated." She says there are a "multitude of reasons" she signed up, "but sometimes it's hard to remember them." It's a ten minute walk from Heather's house to the school where the community has asked her to teach English. Standing in front of one of her classes, she tells the children, who seem to genuinely like her, that it's song time.

"Trash, trash, trash," she sings as a few students join in. "What do you do with it? You throw it away!"

Later, she says, "You wonder if learning English really helps them. Defining your role here is difficult, you come in with a big idea I of changing things, and you get frustrated."

"Development money could be spent in better ways than sending out more inexperienced kids with few skills to offer," says Suerire who has a history degree from Yale. "I totally put myself in that group. I was supposed to train teachers in South Africa to teach the new post-apartheid curriculum. I was in a group of 39, and about 30 of us had no full-time teaching experience. The whole proposition was ludicrous. The Peace Corps could have thought a little harder about what's the best way of using volunteers and their skills and backgrounds."

On the other hand, some volunteers - like Reena Shah, 27, a former PCV who wanted a "grassroots experience" involving her environmental studies major - get exactly what they want. She was assigned to be a soil extension volunteer in her country of choice, Nepal. Beth Blacklow, 23, who wanted to learn Spanish and become a teacher is currently happily teaching in Ecuador.

During his last State of the Union address, President Bush called for Americans to "extend the compassion of our country to every part of the world" by doubling the number of Peace Corps volunteers to 14,000 by 2007. But the House only approved a 6.5 percent funding increase.

"If they double the size on the cheap, they might out support services." Suerie worries. But the Peace Corps insists that while it is optimistic about successfully making the jump, it won't compromise volunteers security or the program's infrastructure to do it.

"This feels like Bush compensating for cutting international funding in Africa, for cutting family planning, for fighting a war that doesn't need to be fought," says Jennifer Warren, 23, who questions her PCV time in oil-rich Jordan. "Now Bush wants to shove more PCVs out there to be do-gooders just to prove ourselves? I don't agree with using them a political pawns to make the U.S. look like a nice country."

Lots of returned PCVs had intensely worthwhile experiences - many say they got more than they gave. "There's not a whole lot you offer, except your youthful enthusiasm and Americanism," says Suerie. But it would suck if the Bush Administration were exploiting these qualities and putting volunteers at risk for the sake of cheap PR.

Back in Lima, the Peace Corps staff is welcoming Peru Two, a fresh batch of 23 female and 13 male PCVs, on their first weekend of a three-month training session. They look like a Road Rules reunion as they climb into a minivan that takes them back to their cushy but temporary hotel. As we make our way up the hill back to the resort, Lindsay, a pale, tongue-pierced 22-year-old from Virginia exclaims, " My first real llama I've ever seen! Cool. I expect to see a lot more."

May 14, 2001 - Peace Corps security in question

Read the original story from USA Today on May 14, 2001 on how the security of volunteers has been called into question at:

Peace Corps security in question*

* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.

Peace Corps security in question

By Elliot Blair Smith, USA TODAY

MEXICO CITY After meeting with his Peace Corps supervisor, Walter J. Poirier walked out of La Paz's ramshackle City Hall on the afternoon of Feb. 22 onto the Bolivian capital's colonial plaza. He hasn't been seen since.

The disappearance of the 23-year-old Notre Dame graduate brings into focus the dangers the USA's 7,300 Peace Corps volunteers sometimes face as they engage in development work in 77 countries around the world.

In the agency's 40-year history, 20 volunteers have been murdered. But over the past six years, six Peace Corps volunteers have been murdered in places such as Africa and the Philippines. Now, Poirier is missing and feared dead. Some Peace Corps volunteers and their families also complain of a high rate of unpublicized criminal assaults, particularly sexual assaults. The families of some victims, and some former volunteers who were the victims' friends, say Peace Corps security and supervision measures are inadequate.

Since it was formed in 1961 by President Kennedy to relieve poverty in the Third World, the Peace Corps has posted 169,000 volunteers abroad.

They are sent to developing areas to teach English, build schools and infrastructure and improve health and nutrition. Too often, critics say, this enthusiastic corps of recent college graduates and retirees is exposed to conflict, natural disaster and crime.

Peace Corps spokeswoman Ellen Field says, "There is no correlation between any of the crimes nor is there an explanation for the increases" in violence in recent years.

Field notes that Congress allocated $8.3 million to the 1999 budget to improve safety and security at the developmental agency's posts.

But in testimony to Congress on March 15, Peace Corps Inspector General Charles Smith identified continuing flaws in the security efforts, including housing in dangerous areas and cases of inadequate supervision. Smith said the agency failed even to distinguish between medical and security concerns until 1998, when the corps created the Office for Volunteer Safety and Overseas Security.

Volunteers and their families wonder whether better security measures might have averted several tragedies in the field. They offer these examples:

Nancy Coutu, 29, of Nashua, N.H., was raped and murdered before dawn on April 9, 1996, while bicycling to a Peace Corps meeting on a rural road in Madagascar.

Coutu's mother, Constance Coutu of Kissimmee, Fla., says her daughter should not have been stationed alone in the remote Madagascar countryside and should not have been required to commute in pre-dawn hours to attend Peace Corps functions. "If there had been two (volunteers living together), there would be two of them going to the meeting," the mother says.

Kevin Leveille, 26, of Ventura, Calif., was beaten to death at his home in Tanda, Ivory Coast, in February 1998, allegedly after having reported house robberies on three occasions to local police and to his Peace Corps supervisor. Karen Phillips, 37, of Philadelphia was raped and stabbed to death while walking to her home in Oyem, Gabon, late one night in December 1998, after attending a Peace Corps mixer for new volunteers and then stopping at a bar with friends. Brian Krow, 27, of Fremont, Calif., died after falling from a bridge in Cherkasy, Ukraine, in July 1999. Krow's death was reported as a suicide and later was ruled an accident by police. Family members suspect foul play.

Peace Corps spokeswoman Field says volunteers have three months of intensive training in the country of service that focuses on cultural issues and exercising judgment.

Field notes that female volunteers are counseled to travel in pairs. She says Krow's death was ruled an accident.

Brant Silvers, a former Peace Corps volunteer stationed in Africa, says, however, that the Corps is not as forthcoming as it should be about security matters. Silvers says an "outrageous" number of sexual assaults were reported by about 100 Peace Corps volunteers stationed in the Ivory Coast during his two-year tenure.

The Peace Corps confirms volunteers reported seven sexual assaults, including at least two rapes, in the Ivory Coast from 1997 to 1999, and says four rapes were reported there from 1993 to 1999.

"I think security matters could have been dealt with in a more open way," Silvers says. "There was an informal grapevine of volunteer information. We found out a lot of things that were happening in the country that weren't told to us by the administration and felt a responsibility to tell each other from a safety aspect."

In the case of Poirier's disappearance, his mother, Sheila Poirier, of Lowell, Mass., says Peace Corps officials failed to report her son was missing for two weeks.

Poirier adds: "When we put out the alarm, the Peace Corps didn't even know where he was living. Their protocols and policies are totally lacking."

The Peace Corps is offering a $10,000 reward for information on the missing volunteer, who was stationed in the rugged Zongo Valley near La Paz. The FBI recently sent six agents to Bolivia to search for him. They returned with no information about his whereabouts.

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Safety and Security of Volunteers; COS - Peru; COS - South Africa



By bankass.com (0-1pool136-6.nas12.somerville1.ma.us.da.qwest.net - on Friday, October 10, 2003 - 7:09 am: Edit Post

Claudine Ko,

Thanks for the article. Yeah, the Peace Corps culture started to blame you. They told you to should see a psychologist. Perhaps, your director should have stayed with you to understand your circumstances.

No, Claudine, you are right and the Peace Corps needs to change in Safety, health care and attrition. Your contribution to this call for internal Peace Corps change is enormous. We will be speaking with Congressional members on these issues. Please come help us 978-462-3868. Thanks

I am sure you will get some critics, but you are in the right. Keep it up.

Good luck in your writing career.


By kymdodge (pcp05453415pcs.sandia01.nm.comcast.net - on Monday, November 10, 2003 - 9:57 pm: Edit Post

i had similar feelings of being "dumped" out in the bush alone, I had the same harrasment from men and when I reported it was told I had jepordized my own saftey. gettin in/out was difficult, no phone and not once did anyone check on me to see if I was alive out tehre.

By Anonymous (stu1df9.fiu.edu - on Thursday, February 08, 2007 - 3:09 pm: Edit Post

hi. just wanted to say that my mom was the director that welcomed the author of this article into our home and all she did was trash talk the peace corps.. imagine, trash talking the PEACE corps.

..and you guys choose ot listen to her. alright.

By erodriguez ( on Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - 2:37 pm: Edit Post

I just finished my 3 years in Ecuador and in defense of the Peace Corps our safety and security was excellent. They constantly advise you and warn you of high risk areas. They always send out alerts and even tell you where you CANNOT go to the point you sometimes feel like a child. If you do not have phone or internet service they call a neighbor or store near you. The "majority" of the reported incidents usually come from volunteers who have not adhered to the rules and regulations of the Peace Corps and usually involve drinking. I leave with a very hard regard and respect for the Peace Corps and firmly believe your experience is how "you" make it.

By HeatherF ( on Friday, December 11, 2009 - 1:49 am: Edit Post

My name is Heather. I am the Heather that Claudine stayed with during part of her time visiting Peru. While I will say that obviously this article generated a lot of discussion and dialogue, which is never bad, I do argue that the author already knew the article that she was going to write before even visiting the two Peace Corps sites. If the statistics and deaths were outlined of any major or minor city in the U.S.A. in a year,they would be incredibly higher. Safety and security was as excellent as it could be. People can't be packaged and wrapped up like Christmas ornaments, choosing to leave and serve is about adventure and risk. And safety and security is often more risky in our own country than in the communities we lived. I would like to see a companion piece.

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