Peace Corps needs to do better when volunteers are raped

First published in Newsday
My grandmother didn't have much money. She was a widow who had raised five children on her husband's paycheck from the textile mill. So when she tried to give me $1,000 not to go into the Peace Corps, it was a very big offer.

I told her that I wanted to serve and that it wasn't about money. And I went - to Togo, West Africa, in 1983. My grandmother's fears were about the kind of men I would meet there. She grew queasy thinking about it. I thought her worries were as old-fashioned as her collared housedresses.

The Peace Corps now stands accused of mishandling reports of more than 1,000 sexual assaults of volunteers, including 221 rapes or attempted rapes. Because these crimes are often never reported at all - especially in countries with corrupt local police - the actual numbers of Peace Corps volunteer rape victims are probably much higher.

The organization needs to get serious about this problem, or risk fueling the anxiety of grandmothers everywhere - many of whom may succeed in keeping their progeny at home. Peace Corps director Aaron Williams has appointed a victim's advocate and is implementing better training programs.

The first step is to admit that American women are different, conveying a unique sense of freedom and entitlement. We have that reputation, too - especially those who head across the world for adventure.

In the early months of training, the Peace Corps should address directly how American women are perceived, and recommend ways to avoid giving the wrong message. This is not an effort to blame the victims of sexual assault. But volunteers should be better prepared about cultural differences. For example, we were told that in Togo, women with bare legs were thought promiscuous. Subtler sexual codes should be explored with equal frankness, even when it's embarrassing.

During congressional hearings earlier this month, former Peace Corps women testified that they had felt stalked and constantly afraid. This brings up a second point: volunteers need to be able to report problems to a trusted Peace Corps official, and have them taken seriously. There is absolutely no cause for anyone to remain in a situation where she or he feels like prey - and this should be plainly conveyed to new volunteers. The Peace Corps should document the host countries where volunteers are reporting these problems most often, and reconsider its role there.

Karestan Koenen was raped while she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger in the 1990s. She told Congress this month that one Peace Corps official investigating her case said to her, "I am so sick of you girls going out with men, drinking and dancing, and then when something happens, you call it rape."

Koenen testified that her treatment by the Peace Corps was worse than the rape. Every person connected with this federal program needs to take steps to ensure that this will never happen again. Such a betrayal of someone in the field is far too common in macho outfits like the Peace Corps and the armed services. The U.S. Senate is considering a bill that would give the Pentagon new tools to better prosecute sex offenders in the military.

Clearly, Koenen and her male investigator - probably mirroring women and men generally - view the question of rape very differently. Until humans agree on where the limits are, and who's to blame in every case, organizations that employ women - especially in remote and foreign locations - need to take their side and their view of such incidents.

The Peace Corps is in some measure about exporting American values. A free and savvy cadre of women volunteers, fully supported by the home staff - those are values we can defend.