By Carrie Hessler-Radelet
As always, the health, safety, and security of our Volunteers are Peace Corps’ highest priorities. I am personally deeply committed to providing Volunteers with the training, guidance and support they need to remain healthy, safe and productive throughout their service.
The Peace Corps has established significant new policies and practices that reflect our strong commitment to reducing risks for Volunteers and responding effectively and compassionately to those who are victims of sexual assault and other crimes.
On September 1, the Peace Corps formally launched the final stages of our Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Response program, which has been developed over the past few years in consultation with post staff and Volunteers worldwide, as well as nationally recognized experts, including recommendations from the Department of Justice; the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN); and the Peace Corps’ newly developed Sexual Assault Advisory Council.
With their help, we have developed a two-pronged approach. The first part is to reduce risks through training for Volunteers, including bystander intervention, risk assessment, and other skill-building sessions during pre- and in-service training; the second part is to ensure that Peace Corps staff responds effectively and compassionately when incidents do occur, through staff training, the new Office of Victim Advocacy, and the appointment of trained sexual assault response liaisons at each post.
This new strategy incorporates more than 30 policy changes, extensive training for Volunteers and staff, and new clearly defined procedures for reducing the risk of sexual assault and responding to Volunteers who are victims of sexual assault. The program exceeds the requirements of the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, signed by President Obama in November 2011, reflecting our ironclad commitment to the physical and emotional well-being of every single Volunteer.
Since Congress passed the Kate Puzey Act, the Peace Corps has worked diligently toward full implementation of the law. The agency has collaborated with internal and external stakeholders over the past few years to design and implement a comprehensive, Volunteer-centered sexual assault policy, supported primarily by the Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Response program, along with a number of other reforms. Many components of this program have already been in effect for some time, including the Office of Victim Advocacy, new training for staff and Volunteers, and an immunity policy that encourages Volunteers to report sexual assault to the agency.
As of September 1, there are several new resources and support services available to Peace Corps Volunteers. For example, Volunteers have a new option to report incidents, called restricted reporting, which strictly limits access to information about an assault to only those providing support services requested by the Volunteer. Under restricted reporting, Volunteers who might not have come forward due to confidentiality concerns can now access services. Volunteers also now have access to sexual assault response liaisons at each post to accompany them through the in-country response process, should they request their services.
With these final pieces in place, the Peace Corps’ comprehensive Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Response program is now in effect, and the Peace Corps nears full implementation of the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act.
Our Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Response program is critical to the health and safety of our Volunteers and the continued vitality of the Peace Corps. It reflects our commitment to evidence-based best practices in the delivery of services to safeguard Volunteer health, safety and security, and to helping Volunteers who have been sexually assaulted heal and recover with dignity.
We are working hard to make sure each and every Volunteer is familiar with these program changes. As with any new policy, there will be some adjustments, but I strongly believe the steps we have taken will result in better outcomes for our Volunteers. We will continue to evaluate the impact of this program as it is fully implemented and make adjustments as necessary.
Carrie Hessler-Radelet is the acting director of the Peace Corps. She began as deputy director on June 23, 2010. She is a returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Western Samoa 1981–83) with more than two decades of experience in public health focused on HIV/AIDS and maternal and child health.