Diversity and Inclusion
The Peace Corps seeks to reflect the rich diversity of the U.S. and bring diverse perspectives and solutions to development issues in the countries we serve. For the Peace Corps, diversity is a collection of individual attributes that together help the agency pursue organizational objectives efficiently and effectively. These include national origin, language, race, color, disability, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, veteran status, and family structures. Diversity also encompasses where people are from, where they have lived, and their differences of thought and life experiences.
We also seek to create inclusion—a culture that connects each staff and Volunteers to the organization; encourages collaboration, flexibility, and fairness; and leverages diversity throughout the organization so that all individuals are able to participate and contribute to their full potential—throughout the Volunteer and staff lifecycle.
Diversity and Inclusion at Your Site
Once Volunteers arrive at their sites, diversity and inclusion principles remain the same but take on a different shape, in which your host community may share a common culture and you—the Volunteer—are the outsider. You may be in the minority, if not the sole American like you, at your site. You will begin to notice diversity in perspectives, ethnicity, age, depth of conversation, and degree of support you may receive—and may need to make adjustments. During pre-service training, a session will be held to discuss diversity and inclusion and how you can transcend differences, find common ground, and serve as an ally for your peers.
The Peace Corps emphasizes professional behavior and cross-cultural sensitivity among Volunteers and within their communities to help integration and achieve successful service. As a Volunteer and representative of the United States, you are responsible both for sharing the diversity of U.S. culture (yours and other Americans’) with your host country national counterparts, and also for learning from your host country’s diversity.
To ease the transition to life in your host country, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental, compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual, and will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these limitations. During pre-service training, staff will provide training on how to adapt personal choices and behavior to be respectful of the host country culture, and will be available for ongoing support.
What Might a Volunteer Face?
It will be important to absorb and to attempt to understand the cultural nuances of gender roles in your host country. During pre-service training, you will receive an introduction to gender awareness in-country, and will take time to examine your own thinking about gender roles and how they have impacted you. You’ll then learn to analyze development projects using a gender lens to better understand gender roles in your host country and how these gender roles can benefit or limit what females and males may or may not do—both from a personal standpoint and in relation to work and relationships in-country.
Most expatriate women feel safe in their communities in Cambodia, in addition to traveling within the country. Physical harassment is not common, but precautions still need to be taken. Female Volunteers are likely to attract some unwanted attention, so it is important to develop strategies to deal with this harassment. The higher status given to men over women can be manifested in both subtle and not so subtle ways. Female Volunteers should be aware that smoking and drinking alcohol in public is not culturally appropriate behavior. Female Volunteers may also feel somewhat restricted by the expectations of their host families that they stay home in the evening, always communicate where they are going, etc. Women who are uncomfortable changing these behaviors should carefully consider their decision to serve in Cambodia. Many Cambodian men are introduced to sex by being taken to a brothel by friends in their early 20s. Cambodian colleagues and friends may expect male Volunteers to join them when they go to brothels, even if they know you are married or have a serious girlfriend. In addition to the health risks due to the high HIV rates in Cambodia, you might have ethical issues with this behavior. You will need to develop strategies to avoid risky behavior without damaging your social relationships. Additionally, male Volunteers may feel pressured into heavy drinking at social gatherings. All Volunteers, but especially non-drinkers, will have to find ways to maintain healthy social relationships without drinking or drinking to excess.
Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color
Because of limited exposure, some foreign nationals will expect all U.S. citizens to be white, and are unaware of diversity in the U.S. For Volunteers, the range of responses to their skin color may vary greatly: from being mistaken for a host country national to being questioned about their U.S. citizenship, to facing behavior and language skill expectations or ridicule, to being able to get better prices for goods and services. These instances can be turned into teachable moments for the Volunteer and the host country national. All Volunteers, including white Volunteers and those of color, should be mindful of the issues of race/ethnicity that are embedded in U.S. culture and within your country of service, and should be mindful of being an ally to your fellow Volunteers.
In general, Cambodians view lighter skin as more beautiful, a perception based more on an aesthetic bias than any racial prejudice and one that existed long before encounters between Cambodia and the West. Cambodians are not well-informed about the ethnic and racial diversity of the U.S., and they may expect Volunteers to be Caucasian. Cambodians view skin color as a sign of status, the lighter the skin the more privileged or beautiful you are; darker skin indicates long hours in the rice field, therefore a lower or poorer status. It is common for Asian Americans to be mistaken for Cambodians. Initially, Volunteers of color may find that Cambodian co-workers do not respect your professional skills as much as they respect the skills of white Volunteers. Most Volunteers find acceptance and respect once personal relationships have been developed and professional competence has been demonstrated.
Possible Issues for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning/Queer, Ally (LGBTQA) Volunteers
The Peace Corps actively supports Volunteers and staff of all genders and sexual orientations, and encourages Volunteers to serve as allies to their fellow Volunteers in all aspects. Many countries where the Peace Corps serves have more restrictive cultures with regard to sexual orientation and non-conforming gender identities, though some are more permissive. In every country, Peace Corps staff will work with Volunteers to provide them with locally informed perspectives. Some LGBTQ Volunteers have chosen to come out to community members, with a result of positive and negative reactions, while some have come out only to select Peace Corps staff and Volunteers. Many have chosen to be discreet about their orientation and/or gender identity within their host community. LGBTQA support groups may be available in-country, providing a network to support the needs of the Peace Corps LGBTQA community. More information about serving as an LGBTQ Volunteer is available at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Peace Corps Alumni website at lgbrpcv.org. Additionally, the Peace Corps’ Office of Recruitment and Diversity can be reached at [email protected].
Cambodians do not usually view LGBT individuals or identities, nor are there criminal penalties against sexual acts between members of the same sex. There are some documented Cambodian same-sex married couples. Physical contact in public between members of the same sex (such as linking arms while walking down the street) is a common way for Cambodians to show affection, and it is important for Volunteers to realize that such displays of affection are likely nonsexual in nature. Volunteers who are accustomed to being part of a vibrant gay community in the United States may not get the understanding or support to which they are accustomed in their rural sites, though they can expect to find significant support within the Peace Corps community, including staff and fellow Volunteers. In addition, most large Cambodian cities have significant LGBT communities, established organizations, and Pride activities that Volunteers occasionally take part in.
Possible Issues for Volunteers with Disabilities
Volunteers with disabilities may face physical, social, and attitudinal barriers. While disability-related resources and organizations exist in Cambodia, the concept of disability awareness, rights, and accommodation is not widely understood in many communities. Volunteers may face negative assumptions regarding their ability to perform their service. They may experience direct commentary regarding their disability that would generally be deemed inappropriate or offensive in a U.S. context. Peace Corps staff is committed to working with Volunteers with disabilities to explore options for how each individual can best navigate Cambodian realities in order to have the most positively impactful experience possible. For additional support, the Peace Corps’ Office of Recruitment and Diversity can be reached at [email protected].
Possible Issues for Volunteer Couples
Couples often face pressure from host country nationals to change their roles to conform better with traditional relationships in-country. Host country nationals will often not understand American relationship dynamics and may be outwardly critical of relationships that do not adhere to traditional gender roles. It is also helpful to think about how pressures to conform to local culture can be challenging to men and women in very different ways. Considering how your partner is being affected and discussing what, if any, aspects of your relationship should be changed can help reduce stress for you both.
Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers
A high degree of religious tolerance exists in Cambodia. It is doubtful that any religious issues will arise, unless a Volunteer breaks the Peace Corps’ rule against proselytizing.
Possible Issues for 50+ Volunteers
Older Volunteers may find their age an asset in-country and will often have access to individuals and insights that are not available to younger Volunteers. But, pre-service training can be particularly stressful for older trainees, whose lifelong learning styles and habits may or may not lend themselves to the techniques used. A 50+ individual may be the only older person in a group of Volunteers and initially may not feel part of the group. Some 50+ Volunteers may find it difficult to adapt to a lack of structure and clarity in their role after having worked for many years in a very structured and demanding job. More than younger Volunteers, older Volunteers may have challenges in maintaining lifelong friendships and may want to consider assigning power of attorney to someone in the States to deal with financial matters.
Cambodian government workers are subject to a mandatory retirement age of 55, so Volunteers over that age will find that most, if not all, of their Cambodian co-workers will be younger than they are. Cambodians give great respect and importance to senior family members, and older Volunteers often receive similar deference and respect, though this does not necessarily translate to greater respect for their professional competence or technical knowledge. Your co-workers may smile, nod, and appear to agree with you when the opposite is true, perhaps because they do not want to offend you.