Make Peace Corps less risky for volunteers

January 30, 2011|By Michael L. Buckler

The Peace Corps has endured a rough month. On Jan. 18, the Corps lost Sargent Shriver, its charismatic architect and first leader. The previous Friday, ABC News ran a grizzly story on violence against Peace Corps volunteers — Jess Smochek was gang-raped in Bangladesh in 2004; Kate Puzey was murdered in Benin in 2009. This raises the question: Has Mr. Shriver's Peace Corps become too dangerous for volunteers?

There's no question that in male-dominated, developing countries, the Peace Corps experience is often more harrowing for women than men. Approximately 0.5 percent of female volunteers become rape victims in the Peace Corps (during the two-year service commitment), a figure that is artificially low due to underreporting of sexual assaults (by comparison, 15 percent of American women are raped during their lifetimes). Much harder to track are inappropriate touches, stares, shouts and intimidation, which female volunteers endure on a daily basis.

When volunteers die (3 out of 10,000), the culprit is usually a motorized vehicle, not a disease or violent perpetrator. In Malawi, where I was a volunteer from 2006 to 2008, the roads are precarious, as rickety minibuses, overloaded tractor-trailers, private passenger vehicles and bicycles compete for space in a high-speed game of chicken. In sub-Saharan Africa, traffic deaths are second only to AIDS as the biggest killer of people ages 15 to 44.

Still, Peace Corps volunteers are much more likely to experience burglary or theft (5 percent and 9 percent of volunteers, respectively) than sexual assault or death. These statistics, from a 2009 Peace Corps report on safety, comport with my experience in Malawi, where petty property crime is common but violence occurs infrequently. Although no volunteer (to my knowledge) was raped or killed during my tour, the homes of several volunteers were burglarized.

As Peace Corps director, Mr. Shriver believed in volunteers and knew that the righteousness of their mission outweighed the dangers. That remains true today. The Corps is invited into countries because its no-strings-attached service is admired as a noble practice. As grass-roots ambassadors, Peace Corps volunteers put a human face on a powerful country whose image has been tarnished by propaganda. Volunteers live like natives, learn local languages and cultures, and help ordinary people achieve their goals for progress. The Peace Corps is soft power, and American altruism, at its best.

Yet, in honor of Mr. Shriver, the Peace Corps should do more to promote the safety of its volunteers. These changes would help prevent future tragedies:

•Allow volunteers to live together (there is strength in numbers);

•Give volunteers allowances to hire watchmen (an inexpensive measure that provides local employment);

•Encourage volunteers to live with local people (as I did in Malawi);

•Place more volunteers in rural areas (urban centers have higher crime rates);

•Strictly protect volunteer confidentiality, so that whistle blowers like Kate Puzey are protected;

•Working with the State Department and host country governments, aggressively prosecute criminals who prey upon Peace Corps volunteers; and

•Provide comprehensive, long-term support to volunteers who are victimized.

Peace Corps service is a calculated risk — a relatively small one. Within the Peace Corps, changes should be made to protect volunteers; Sargent Shriver would have wanted that. I hope that these changes, not a fearful backlash against the Peace Corps, will be the legacies of Jess Smochek and Kate Puzey.

Michael L. Buckler, a Maryland native and member of the Maryland Bar, is the author of "From Microsoft to Malawi: Learning on the Front Lines as a Peace Corps Volunteer." His e-mail is mike_buckler@yahoo.com.

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