Thousands of young women sign up every year to serve in the Peace Corps, but former volunteers and employees say that the global volunteer program is failing to protect and support those who have been sexually assaulted or raped while on duty.
A Peace Corps volunteer works with handicapped children in Costa Rica. Photo by Paul Conklin/Getty Images
It was September in Tirana, Albania's frenzied, crumbling capital. The hot weather's vice-like grip on the city had released a little and the temperature had finally slid below 30 degrees. In a badly-ventilated conference room, Bonnie Scott sat—nearly paralyzed with fear and confusion—as Cale Wagner, Peace Corps' new country director in Albania, told her she was being dismissed for failing to hand in paperwork.
He was right. Scott, who had been volunteering with the US government program in an Albanian village, had not submitted her leave request for a conference—but that wasn't usually a big deal. She knew a lot of people who hadn't handed in their paperwork. None of them had been sent home. However just over a month earlier, Scott had reported allegations that another US Peace Corps staff member had harassed and sexually assaulted two local women. This, she believes, was the real reason she was dismissed.
Scott's story is not an isolated case. The Peace Corps' past is littered with allegations that it does not provide adequate support for whistleblowers and victims of sexual assault. The US government program—which currently has nearly 7,000 American volunteers serving around the world on development projects—has also been accused of an entrenched culture of victim-blaming among its staff.
In 2011, ABC reported that more than 1,000 women had been raped or sexually assaulted while serving in the Peace Corps over the last decade. More recently, a leaked internal Peace Corps report from 2015 found that roughly one in five volunteers have been sexually assaulted. Half of the victims did not report their attack. Some of the women involved say they were blamed by staff for what happened.
Sipping lemon tea in a coffee shop in Tirana five months later, Seattle native Scott, 53, said she felt "targeted, bullied and terrorized" throughout the dismissal process. She said that Wagner told her that unless she boarded a plane in less than 48 hours after their meeting, Peace Corps would not pay for her flight home. Scott refused. Instead she stayed in Albania to continue her work on women's rights and to expose what happened.
It all started in August last year when Scott was approached by a local who told her about two women who were alleging that a member of the Peace Corps had assaulted them. Scott reported the allegations to Peace Corps on August 7. Soon afterwards the Peace Corps announced that the person had resigned "for personal reasons." It was this that motivated Scott to talk to the press.
"Peace Corps did the right thing by getting rid of him so quickly, but they tried to cover it up," she says. "I couldn't let him just resign. That meant he could get a job somewhere else."
Another Peace Corps volunteer, also based in the Balkans, said the timing of Scott's dismissal from Peace Corps seemed suspicious, "especially since the [paperwork] violations which got her separated are fairly common among volunteers and seem like they were selectively enforced. It's all too convenient that she was separated [dismissed] after reporting against [one of her colleagues]."
The volunteer, who asked not be named for fear of losing their position, said: "Peace Corps must begin changing the internal culture of the organization. There is zero tolerance for drug use but there is not zero tolerance for sexual misconduct, and that is unacceptable."
In 2014, another incident raised alarm bells over Peace Corps' treatment of female volunteers. Dr. Kris Morris, a Peace Corps clinical psychologist, said in emails obtained by The Daily Beast that volunteers who were victims of sexual assault and demonstrated a "need for ongoing therapy" were not "fit for Peace Corps service."
Kellie Greene witnessed this victim-blaming culture first-hand while working as the Director of the PeaceCorps Office of Victims Advocacy. It was her responsibility to support volunteers who had been victims of crime, including theft, violence, and sexual assault. She spoke to volunteers directly and developed policies to reduce the trauma experienced by victims.
Her role was created as part of the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act in 2011, a law that was made in response to the murder of a volunteer in Benin. Puzey, a 24 year old from Atlanta, was found with her throat slit soon after reporting her suspicions that a Peace Corps contractor was sexually abusing students at the school where she taught.
In November, after over four years of working at Peace Corps, Greene was placed on unpaid suspension for creating a "hostile" work environment. "The agency doesn't want a victim advocate that challenges the status quo of how the Peace Corps treats its volunteers who are victims of sexual assault and other crimes," Green tells Broadly.
She believes the hostile environment was created by staffers who didn't want the culture to change. "The position was not well received by staff at HQ or by staff out in the field. Every day was a struggle."
Greene believes her unpaid suspension was "abusive." She has since been reassigned to a new position in the Office of Staff Development and Learning, which she believes proves "that the Peace Corps knows the actions they have taken against me are extreme and not well founded." Her legal team is in the process of filing a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel over her reassignment.
Both Scott and Greene believe the reason why Peace Corps has such a bad record on sexual assault is because staff are not held accountable for their actions or their attitudes. Scott suspects this is linked to the way American staff are restricted to serving five year terms. "They have no real concern about the volunteers and nobody demands change because they all know they are going to leave."
Greene says Peace Corps should not tolerate staff that exhibit victim-blaming attitudes. She says that while working in the Victims' Advocacy Office, she would often hear volunteers say that staff minimized complaints of sexual assault, telling them what happened "is not a big deal" or "happens all the time."
The Peace Corps told Broadly that the organization could not comment on Scott's or Greene's cases specifically unless a privacy waiver was signed. "These are unproven allegations and we welcome the signing of privacy waivers so we can discuss these claims more specifically," a spokesperson says.
"Peace Corps takes allegations of whistleblowing seriously, does not retaliate against whistle-blowers, and encourages those with allegations to come forward. We have achieved extraordinary progress [through policy reform], seeing nothing short of a culture change that reflects our dedication to volunteers and our commitment to a response that is victim–centered and consistent with our nation's best practice."
Greene agrees that progress has been made but she sees Peace Corps' attitude towards counselling as indicative of the wider problem. A Peace Corps spokesperson says the program does not limit the number of counselling sessions that an individual can receive. Greene says in practice, that's not true. "If the volunteer wants more than six sessions, the Peace Corps tells them they are 'not fit for service,'" she says, echoing the 2014 email leak. "In this situation a volunteer is forced to either forego counselling in order to continue service or terminate service to continue with counselling."
When it comes to victims of sexual assault, Peace Corps treats victims as if they were disposable, says Greene. "Peace Corps will manage trauma to the convenience of the agency. And once a volunteer requires too much time and effort, the organization is quick to say, 'We've got thousands of people in the US that want to be volunteers—let them be replaced.'"