A global network for sexual assault prevention
There are months dedicated to honoring the contributions of different genders, ethnic, or racial groups to American history and culture. There are months set aside to celebrate and promote inclusivity. And there are the months during which we shine a light into dark spaces, acknowledge painful societal sores, and advocate for improvement. April was Sexual Assault Awareness Month, one of the months we don’t celebrate a history or an identity, but, instead, acknowledge a wrong and seek to make it right.
For more than 60 years, the Peace Corps has worked to reduce the risk of harassment and assault and has developed and implemented a comprehensive sexual assault program, including an Office of Victim Advocacy that supports survivors and an independent Sexual Assault Advisory Council that guides continual improvement of the program. The agency has also taken many other intentional actions to enhance Volunteer safety and security measures and to strengthen the Peace Corps’ response to victims of sexual assault.
Last year, the Peace Corps detailed a plan for further improvements the agency intends to make as it continues to invest in societal change through prevention efforts and through trauma-informed, individualized support for Volunteers who experience sexual assault. This roadmap outlines a four-pronged approach to enhance the Peace Corps’ efforts for the health, safety, and well-being of both Volunteers and the community members they work alongside. These pillars are:
- Support a cultural shift;
- Integrate prevention;
- Ensure trauma-informed programming and approaches; and
- Strengthen accountability.
Specific actions include enhancing procedures for vetting the communities and neighborhoods where Volunteers are placed, strengthening procedures for screening host families and other community resources, expanding mental health services for survivors; providing research-based, supplemental training for staff, Volunteers, and counterparts; and expanding screening tools for sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and stalking. A prevention specialist is actively developing a SAPR strategy supporting the shift to a public health prevention model. The strategy will be published in the fall of this year and will highlight primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention efforts and intentionally draw connections to their impact on sexual assault.
With Volunteers living and working in communities in more than 60 countries worldwide, the Peace Corps’ work is global and so too must be our prevention and support ecosystem. Peace Corps takes a coordinated, all-agency approach to sexual assault prevention and response. In one example of the global systems at play, in February of this year, representatives from the Peace Corps met with Atdhe Dema, a Special Prosecutor in Kosovo who specializes in sexual assault. His office is committed to supporting survivors through the legal process with specially trained attorneys. This approach aligns with Peace Corps’ victim-centered, trauma-informed system. Following the meeting, Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn emphasized the work Peace Corps does to vet attorneys who work with Peace Corps in all countries where Volunteers serve—all in a proactive commitment to reducing sexual assault and to increasing Peace Corps’ ability to provide a compassionate response and to ensure a survivor understands their legal options.
As Director Spahn wrote in a message to all Peace Corps staff at the beginning of April 2023, “Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month is just one chance to spotlight the fact that sexual violence is pervasive, and its impacts are harmful on all levels – individual, institutional, community, world. And, all too often, these impacts are disproportionately felt by those most oppressed. But we cannot stop there. Each day of the year is an opportunity to create change for the future.”
As more and more Volunteers and Trainees accept the bold invitation to serve in the Peace Corps, we are keeping the momentum going toward Roadmap progress and we are shining on a light on an issue that requires our intentional and collective work to reject and resolve. As we step into May, Peace Corps and its partners around the world will continue strengthening efforts to prevent sexual assault and increasing support for victims and survivors in every way possible.