Safety and Security
Serving as a Volunteer overseas entails certain safety and security risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment, a limited understanding of the local language and culture, and the perception of being a wealthy American can put a Volunteer at risk. Property theft and burglaries are not uncommon. Incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Volunteers complete their two years of service without a serious safety and security incident. Together, the Peace Corps and Volunteers can reduce risk but cannot truly eliminate all risk. Read more on how the Peace Corps approaches safety and security.
Support From Staff
The Peace Corps’ approach to safety is a five-pronged plan to help you stay safe during your service. The plan includes information sharing, Volunteer training, site selection criteria, a detailed emergency action plan, and protocols for responding to safety and security incidents.
Our first priority after an incident is to make sure the Volunteer is safe and receiving any necessary medical treatment. The faster an incident is reported, the faster we can provide support, including security, medical, emotional, and legal. Peace Corps staff will also support Volunteers who choose to make a formal complaint with local law enforcement. It’s important for Volunteers to report incidents as soon as possible after they occur so that Peace Corps can assess and determine if there is a lingering or ongoing safety and security concern for either the Volunteer victim or their peer Volunteers and take the necessary precautions to preserve the right to file a complaint if the Volunteer chooses to do so. The Peace Corps will train you to develop strategies to mitigate risk and how to respond if you are the victim of a crime, including how to get to a safe location quickly and contact your Peace Corps office.
Crimes that do occur abroad are investigated and prosecuted by local jurisdictional authorities. If you decide to file a complaint, the Peace Corps will assist you in navigating this process. All Volunteers who are victims of crime have access to the Office of Victim Advocacy, which provides information on the medical, emotional, and legal support options available, and will support you through the process. The Office of Victim Advocacy is available 24/7.
Staying Safe: Don’t Be a Target for Crime
As a Volunteer, you must be prepared to assume a large degree of responsibility for your own safety. To reduce the likelihood that you will become a victim of crime, you can take steps to make yourself less of a target such as integrating into your community, learning the local language, acting responsibly, and abiding by Peace Corps policies and procedures. In many ways, do what you would do if you moved to a new city anywhere: Be cautious, check things out, ask questions, learn about your neighborhood, know where the more risky locations are, use common sense, and be aware.
Factors that Contribute to Risk
Numerous factors can heighten a Volunteer’s risk, many of which are within a Volunteer’s control. By far the most common crime that Volunteers experience is theft of property, which is more likely to happen when Volunteers are away from their sites, in crowded locations (such as markets or on public transportation), and when leaving items unattended. Crime at the village or town level is less frequent than in the large cities; people in smaller villages/towns know each other and are more likely to look out for their neighbors. Tourist attractions in large towns are favorite worksites for pickpockets.
Before you depart for service, you can take the following measures to reduce risk:
- Leave valuable objects in the United States, particularly those that are irreplaceable or have sentimental value
- Leave copies of important documents and account numbers with someone you trust in the United States
- Purchase a hidden money pouch or “dummy” wallet as a decoy
- Purchase insurance for your personal articles
After you arrive in-country, you will receive detailed information about common crimes, factors that contribute to Volunteer risk and local strategies to reduce that risk. Some of those strategies include avoiding high-risk areas, knowing the local language, choosing safe routes for travel, and limiting alcohol consumption. You will also be informed of local safety and security policies such as prohibitions on using certain types of public transportation and hitchhiking and avoiding high-risk recreation activities.
Given Peace Corps Sri Lanka’s status as a new post, we do not have current data on crimes against Volunteers.
Safety Issues In-Country
Vehicular Accidents: The accident rate, defined as the number of road fatalities per 100,000 people, is significantly higher in Sri Lanka than in the U.S. and has become a noticeable, growing social problem. Peace Corps’ transportation policies are designed to reduce the risk of Volunteer involvement in traffic accidents, however accidents remains an area of concern given the road and driving conditions in the country.
Natural Disasters: Sri Lanka, being a mountainous island in the Indian Ocean, experiences two monsoon seasons and as a result is affected by weather-related hazards including flooding, landslides, lightning strikes, and coastal erosion. The south/western monsoons brings rain to the South and West of Sri Lanka between May and September while the dry season in this area is from December to March. The north/eastern monsoon brings wind and rain between October and January with drier weather between May and September. The inter-monsoonal period during October and the first half of November is marked by rain and thunderstorms occurring without pattern across the Island. In 2004, almost two-thirds of the Sri Lankan coast was affected by the Indian Ocean Tsunami, highlighting the country’s vulnerability to low frequency but high impact events. In addition Government of Sri Lanka considers climate change as a disaster affecting the country.
Landmines/UXO: The overall risk of landmines and UXOs is low due to the effective identification of areas affected by landmines and UXOs in war effected areas in North and East. Areas with active demining efforts will be off-limits to Volunteers.
Thefts and Burglaries: Like in most countries, theft is most common in urban areas. Perpetrators frequently target victims at crowded public transportation hubs (trains, buses, depots and stations) especially during peak hours. Crimes usually take the form of pick-pocketing with some perpetrators working in teams, and snatch and grabs. Burglaries (termed as "housebreaking" by the Sri Lanka Police) usually targeted those perceived as wealthy including foreigners. Other scams involve ATM card readers and credit card skimmers particularly in Colombo and other major cities. Volunteers will most likely be at higher risk when travelling or visiting urban areas.
Unwanted Attention and Sexual Harassment: We anticipate that unwanted attention and sexual harassment, especially for females, will be a challenge for Volunteers. According to UNFPA report 90% local women have been subject to sexual harassment on public transportation - this is a part of a larger issue of sexual harassment occurring at home, within the workplace, and in public spaces. There is a reluctance of openly discussing the sexual harassment/assaults in the society, although this trend is changing with many agencies and women’s organizations working on the issue. Strategies for dealing and coping with harassment will be discussed during pre-service training. Volunteers are likely to attract a lot of attention both in large cities and at their sites, but they are more likely to receive negative attention in highly populated centers, and away from their support network—friends and colleagues—who look out for them. While whistles and exclamations may be fairly common in Sri Lanka, this behavior can be reduced if you dress conservatively, abide by local cultural norms, and respond according to the training you will receive. By proactively and strategically building relationships with key individuals in the community (i.e., counterparts, co-workers, neighbors, members community organizations, local shop owners, taxi/bus station workers), Volunteers can make their site become a place where they feel safe and comfortable throughout service.
Sexual Assault: We are unable to predict what the sexual assault rate will be in Sri Lanka, but it is inevitable that sexual assaults, most likely groping and unwanted touching, will occur. Those who take seriously the training provided on "risk assessment" and dealing with assaults, which are often associated with alcohol consumption and cross-cultural differences in gender relations, can minimize their risk. The Peace Corps urges Volunteers to report all assaults and threats of assault to the Medical Officer and/or Safety and Security Manager so staff can respond with appropriate support.
Whereabouts Reporting: The Peace Corps requires that each Peace Corps country have a "whereabouts" policy and that you, as a Volunteer, comply fully with this policy. Peace Corps/Sri Lanka has developed a whereabouts policy that encourages Volunteers to invest time in their sites, but at the same time realizes that "down time" is also important for Volunteers. You will be expected to follow established procedures any time you contemplate leaving your site by providing notification of your travel prior to leaving your site. The whereabouts policy will be explained in greater detail during your in-country training. Although this policy will put limitations on your travels, something you need to recognize and accept, it will lessen any risks that you may face while traveling around the country. Most importantly, it will enable Peace Corps/Sri Lanka to locate you at any time should there be any type of emergency, such as those relating to family back in the States or natural disasters such as mentioned above.