College Students Respond to ‘20/20’ Peace Corps Investigation

Jan 18, 2011 4:18pm

ABC News on Campus reporters Clark Fouraker and Lynne Guey blog: More than 44,000 young American women have served in the Peace Corps over the past decade, and according to a recent ABC News ’20/20′ investigation, more than 1000 of these women have reported rape or sexual abuse while volunteering for the organization abroad.  It’s a statistic that alarms current Peace Corps applicants.    Jill Hoxmeier, pictured above, was excited when she learned she had been assigned to Guyana, South America as a Peace Corps volunteer. In 2007, a year into her service, she was riding her bike home from work when she was dragged into the bushes and sexually assaulted by a man who had been following her. "I am deeply sorry for the women who had to endure those experiences," said Sarah Kaiser-Cross, a University of Florida senior and Peace Corps applicant who hopes to teach either Arabic or English in North Africa. "The reality is we live in a world sadly poisoned by hate and anger. Choosing to serve in the Peace Corps means taking a risk." Approximately 60 percent of Peace Corps volunteers are women who serve in 77 countries across the globe.  Now, former volunteers are coming forward, accusing the U.S. agency of ignoring safety concerns and  making volunteers who were sexually assaulted abroad feel as if they themselves were to blame. In the ’20/20′ investigation, six rape and sexual assault victims told their stories in hopes that the Peace Corps would respond with better volunteer training and victim counseling. Despite the latest news, Kaiser-Cross says she will still serve.  "If you are called to serve, chances are you should follow your heart,” she said. After the ’20/20′ story aired last Friday the Peace Corps issued a statement on its website calling ABC’s program a “deeply troubling” inaccurate reflection of “Peace Corps' unwavering commitment to our volunteers.” Click HERE to read the full statement. The organization had issued an earlier statement citing the Peace Corps' 2010 Annual Volunteer Survey which demonstrates that 87 percent of respondents reported feeling usually safe or very safe where they live, with 91 percent reporting the same where they work. "We will never be able to entirely eliminate volunteers' exposure to crimes overseas, but we will continue to do our best to make Peace Corps a safe and productive experience for the Americans serving as volunteers today and in the future … When anything happens to one of our volunteers, we do our best to offer comprehensive support through medical, counseling and legal services."  Click HERE to read the full statement issued prior to the ’20/20′ broadcast. Despite this, some of the women interviewed by ’20/20′ said the Peace Corps treated them in an insensitive way and should have provided more counseling. The Peace Corps maintains that they are firmly committed to the safety and security of their volunteers, and have developed an enhanced sexual assault prevention and response strategy. Current students considering the Peace Corps say the dangers of volunteering in a potentially dangerous country will not deter them. "If I receive a Peace Corps nomination I will still accept it," said Samantha Merkle, a Peace Corps applicant and University of Florida senior who is planning to teach English in South America.  "I realize the world is a dangerous place and horrific situations as discussed in the report can happen anywhere in the world, even in the safety of our country." Merkle said the organization discussed safety briefly during the application process, telling her about a phone number volunteers can call if they ever feel they are in danger while serving abroad. "During my interview with the Peace Corps, I was asked several questions about how my family and friends felt about me serving abroad, with specific mention for my safety," she said. John Hash, a senior history and government major at the University of Texas-Austin, said he found out about the Peace Corps and decided to apply because of his sister who served in Zimbabwe in the late 90s. "That's a problem that needs to be taken care of," he said, referring to the sexual abuse.  "I'm a guy so it's not a dire concern.  It speaks to the structure of the program.  It’s not going to change my decision — I'm still applying because of the opportunity but it needs to be addressed," he said. Although the Peace Corps applicants we spoke with believe that the U.S. agency should provide extra safety measures for their volunteers, they are still determined to serve abroad. "This report has raised my awareness of gang rape and motivated me to continue researching this topic," said Merkle. Even so, she says, "I can't deny myself this opportunity out of the fear of danger." What do you think? What more can the Peace Corps do to ensure that its volunteers remain safe? ABC News on Campus reporter Melanie Torre contributed to this report.

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