Peace Corps needs new sex abuse policy

By Karestan Koenen, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Karestan Chase Koenen is an associate professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and at Harvard University who studies trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. She is also co-author with Drs. Marylene Cloitre and Lisa Cohen of “Treating Survivors of Childhood Abuse: Psychotherapy for the Interrupted Life” published by Guilford Press.
Laura Bush with Ghana Peace Corps volunteers

Image via Wikipedia

(CNN) — A former Peace Corps volunteer, Jessie Osmun, was arrested early this month in Milford, Connecticut, and charged with sexually abusing five girls under the age of 6 in an AIDS clinic in South Africa.  According to a complaint, the abuse was discovered when a teacher saw Osmun follow three young girls into a preschool building. Prosecutors say Osmun appeared startled and zipped up his pants. They say the girls referred to Osmun as “uncle” and said he gave them candy for performing oral sex. He has not entered a plea.  In its 50th anniversary year, the Peace Corps has found itself embroiled in controversy over reports of sexual assaults of volunteers — and now this accusation of sexual assault by a volunteer. In January, Brian Ross of the ABC News program “20/20” interviewed six women who said that they had been sexually assaulted in the Peace Corps, and that the organization had disbelieved their reports of being attacked.

The outcry following the report led to hearings by the House Foreign Affairs Committee,  As a former Peace Corps volunteer who believes in and supports the Peace Corps, and as a rape survivor who testified at those congressional hearings, I hope the agency will use this crisis as an opportunity to reform. I am also a professor at Columbia and Harvard who studies trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, and have spent decades working with adults who were sexually abused as children, trying to help them rebuild lives that were interrupted long ago.  Sexual abuse of young girls is shockingly common throughout the world. The National Center for Victims of Crime estimates that in the United States, one in four girls are victimized before age 18, most often by someone they know.

The adverse effects of sexual abuse are lasting. Victims are vulnerable to mental health problems like post-traumatic stress disorder, have an increased risk of becoming pregnant as teenagers and of dropping out of school, and are more likely later in life to develop chronic illnesses like diabetes. Many victims suffer in silence. Those who do report their abuse are often disbelieved or blamed, told that they somehow “asked for it.”

I know the harm of victim-blaming firsthand. When I decided to prosecute my rape, I was not supported by the Peace Corps, but rather blamed for my attack. At the recent hearing, Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams apologized to me and the other rape victims harmed by the Corps’ callous and indifferent treatment.

And I’m now encouraged that the agency has condemned the alleged South Africa abuses, that the Corps’ inspector general is conducting an investigation and that prosecutors are treating the case seriously. The Peace Corps has made initial steps toward reforming its policies and procedures around the prevention and response to sexual assault. Much more needs to be done.

Sexual attacks are often committed in secret, and victims are reluctant to come forward. But these crimes are also accompanied by warning signs that can be detected with proper training. The Peace Corps needs to adequately train its staff and volunteers in how to identify inappropriate sexual behavior and intervene effectively. Sexual abuse does not have to destroy lives, if girls and women receive immediate, victim-centered, compassionate response from professionals and caregivers.

The Peace Corps inspector general’s investigation of the Osmun case should include interviews with individuals in South Africa to see if warning signs were missed. The Corps should follow the lead of the Defense Department, which has instituted a program called “bystander intervention,” which trains service members to identify warning signs to intervene to prevent assaults.

This training should be accompanied by strong protections for whistle-blowers who report the misconduct of other Peace Corps volunteers or staff. They need to know that their reports will be kept confidential.  Peace Corps volunteers serve in the poorest countries in the world, living among those they serve. By training its volunteers in how to prevent and respond to sexual violence of all kinds, and instituting strong protections for volunteers who report abuse, the Peace Corps can set an international example of respect for assault victims. My deepest hope is that on its 100th anniversary, the Peace Corps will be lauded around the world for its contribution to preventing sexual violence against girls and women.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Karestan Chase Koenen.

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