Dear Peace Corps: No One Should Have to Apologize for Being Raped

 

In 2004 I apologized to the Peace Corps for being raped, because I believed them when they told me it was my fault.

The messages I received during my counseling from Peace Corps have stayed with me as little reminders, embedded in my psyche. Don’t tell people you’d been drinking the night you were attacked. Dont tell anyone in Mali (or anywhere) what happened to you, it might put you at risk. Think about what you wear before you leave the house. 

This victim-blaming doesn’t exist only in the Peace Corps, of course—the social norms that foster sexual violence permeate American society, the countries Peace Corps operates in, and our world as a whole. But the Peace Corps has a choice and a responsibility in how it responds to volunteers who’ve been assaulted.

It wasn’t until seven years after the attack that I realized my experience was representative of a systemic problem at the Peace Corps. In 2011, I sat on my futon in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and cried as I listened to a group of volunteers share their sexual-assault experiences on “20/20.” Then I got mad. It was the first time I’d thought more critically about the therapy I’d received as a volunteer. Before then I’d recognized that some of the messages were unhealthy, but now I saw how widespread this culture of victim-blaming was. I dug through my journals and wrote my rape story for the first time, but I wasn’t ready to come forward yet; I still had too much shame around my attack.

Last week, as I read about the report that found nearly 1 in 5 volunteers are assaulted during their service, I felt inspired to dig around for more information. There was one ray of hope in a blog post from a volunteer who’d had a positive experience with the Peace Corps post-attack, but as I read other news, it sounded as though not much had changed since my experience. When I learned the Peace Corps recently suspended its director of the Office of Victim Advocacy, Kellie Greene, who then filed a whistleblower complaint, I realized the fundamental ways in which I felt Peace Corps failed me likely hadn’t changed.  

And so, finally, it’s time to share my story.196223_7188250374_7064_n

I was raped in Bamako, Mali, when I was a 22-year-old Peace Corps volunteer. Following the attack, I called the Peace Corps emergency number in shock and was told I’d have to wait an hour and a half until the medical office opened. Peace Corps staff told me I could report the attack to police, but I would have to tell my story to a bunch of Malian men who would perceive it as being my fault as a white woman, and there would likely be no consequences for the perpetrator. A few hours after being convinced not to press charges, I changed my mind, but Peace Corps staff told me it was too late, even though we had done a rape kit and I knew the full name of my attacker, his nationality, where he lived, and his employer. Other little things seemed off, too: For example, my medical evacuation itinerary was accidentally printed to the volunteer lounge by Peace Corps staff, alighting both volunteer gossip and concern.

After getting flown to Washington, DC, I received counseling from a Peace Corps clinical social worker six days a week for about 40 days. The rules of the game quickly became clear: The decision of whether I returned to Mali was not mine to make—Peace Corps would need to decide if I was a liability first. I needed to show remorse for the risky situation I’d put myself in, and if I was still in counseling after 45 days, my contract as a volunteer would be terminated.

From the moment I landed in DC, I was set on going back to Mali to continue my work in a small village 110 kilometers from Bamako. I loved my community and felt a deep commitment to the work we were doing together, including starting a mobile banking system and creating income-generating activities with women. I was terrified the rape would be a defining moment in the direction of my life, and I felt powerless to influence my future. Instead of finding healing in the treatment sessions, it felt like I was being trained in how to accept responsibility for my “role” in being attacked.

My counselor told me the man who raped me probably didn’t know he was doing anything wrong. That culturally that’s the norm in West Africa. While the norm is horrific, I refuse to believe he didn’t know he was doing anything wrong when I was screaming, trying to escape from the locked room, and wrestling him off of me.

She asked me to explain every choice I’d made before, during, and after the attack. Every minute of that night was dissected for evidence of what I had done wrong. I spent sessions working with my counselor to brainstorm ways I could keep myself safe in the future; we replayed the night’s events and she asked me to write down each decision I should have made differently to keep myself safe.

After years of intensive work to unlearn the messages I received, I started to better understand the fundamental problems with my treatment. Peace Corps, as it currently operates, assumes the position of both employer and treatment provider in the wake of an assault, to the detriment of volunteers. Having my employer be responsible for my treatment didn’t allow me to process my experience and heal the way therapy is intended to. Instead it taught me to take responsibility for something that wasn’t mine to own, beat myself up for my “mistakes,” and be guarded and fearful over every word I shared with my counselor, knowing everything I said could potentially be used to terminate my contract. She made it clear she was assessing everything, including the way I was sitting in my chair if I happened to be wearing a shorter dress.

Every time I sent an email to anyone on staff in Mali, including the volunteer liaison who was a friend of mine, it would end up in my counselor’s inbox and we’d have to discuss it. One time I asked simply, if I did return to Mali, if there was a possibility of having either a car or another volunteer travel with me out of Bamako and back to my site, because I was worried about PTSD and being triggered. My counselor reminded me it wasn’t my place to be asking those kinds of questions because the decision wasn’t mine to make.

My counselor instructed me that in order to Return to Country (RTC), I needed to write and sign a letter of intent taking responsibility for my actions and sharing how I would keep myself safe in the future. I was also required to sign an agreement saying I would never consume any amount of alcohol again as a volunteer (I’d had one night of drinking in 10 months of service) or I would face immediate administrative separation.

In the letter I wrote, I knew I was telling Peace Corps what it needed to hear in order to finish my remaining 13 months of service, but I’d also deeply internalized the messages. So much so that it has taken years for me to willingly disclose to others the circumstances of my rape. I requested my medical records around the time of the 2011 legislative hearing, but this week was the first time I let anyone else read them. I'm sharing my letter below (which was signed by three Peace Corps staff responsible for responding to safety concerns), because its time. As you’ll see, my counselor included in the letter a portion of the email I’d sent her explaining my uncertainty about whether the letter sufficiently conveyed my “remorse and regret.” Letter copy-page-001

It’s been 11 years since I was attacked, and still I’ve only told a handful of people what happened to me that night. Even re-reading the letter this week in preparation for this piece, I felt the old voices creep into my mind. Insidiously sharing with me that maybe I should just keep this to myself. Wondering how it would affect my relationships, my family, my employment. Questioning how I would be judged. I hate that that’s the reality of the world we live in, but I refuse to accept the blame for being attacked.

“Victim blaming” might as well be called “perpetrator protection.” We can all feel a little safer if we can pinpoint the reasons that someone was attacked, but it’s a destructive myth embedded in our cultural framework. It perpetuates the myth that we have control over what happens to us. And it eliminates the empathetic response that’s needed when survivors are stripped of their self-determination through the destructive choices of others.

We need to recognize that violence is endemic in our society. I believe healing it requires us to agree and publicly acknowledge that violent acts are the choice of the perpetrators. Ignoring that truth, as the Peace Corps has, fosters violence by reinforcing harmful social norms and promoting unequal power between genders by allowing alleged male perpetrators to return to service while terminating female victims.

After more than 11 years of hiding behind shame, I’m ready to shout: I did not make the decision to be raped. It does not matter what the circumstances were, it does not matter what I was wearing, if I’d been drinking, where I was, or how I behaved. I did not ask to be raped. No one has ever asked to be raped.

13987070118_55bec53df1_bI was victimized by the violent act of another human being. I was revictimized by the Peace Corps. And it’s time for change. There needs to be a separation of the mental health treatment of volunteers from the supervisory role the Peace Corps has as an employer. Liability assessment has no place in processing a traumatic event. And treatment should not be used as a means to inflict shame and perpetuate self-blaming mentalities that victims so often already experience. It needs to be a means to healing, to ensure one incident does not negatively affect the course of a life in perpetuity.

Now, this minute, we must approach sexual assault victims with open arms, while condemning the acts of the perpetrators. The shame, guilt, and self-hatred I learned as part of my treatment from the Peace Corps is preventable, through care that puts the survivor first and allows individuals the space, freedom of expression, and compassion necessary to heal.

 

Photos: My Outfit Is Not an Invitation by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh; Stop Blaming Victims by Wolfram Burner (cc)

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Danielle Dryke

About

Danielle is a connector of people, resources, ideas, and joy. She has fluttered through more than 40 countries to explore, do yoga, connect spiritually, write, share laughter, and build relationships new and old. She's landed in five countries for longer stints, including four years in Mali. Her greatest aspiration is to serve others by supporting them to uncover and birth their truth and thus take back their innate power. In the daylight hours, she works with nonprofits and public agencies doing program evaluation, ToP facilitation, and strategic planning. She's currently seeking representation for her memoir manuscript, "Pawns and Prisoners: A Memoir of Denial." Learn more at http://www.danielledryke.com.


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'Dear Peace Corps: No One Should Have to Apologize for Being Raped' have 21 comments

  1. December 11, 2015 @ 12:35 pm Anna Befort

    I'm sorry this happened to you, Danielle, but thank you for being so courageous and inspiring in sharing your story.

    Reply

    • August 2, 2016 @ 1:12 pm Catherine Todd

      Yes, thank you so much for sharing your story Danielle! It reminded me so much of when I was raped, and when I told my so-called “therapist” Sonja K. Schoenwald, at Duke University in Durham NC, about what happened to me when I was tied up with a butcher knife at my neck, she decided I had a “mental illness” because I did not PROTECT MYSELF SUFFICIENTLY. I was raped by the dishwasher where I worked!

      So it’s not the Peace Corps but it was the police at the time and it was the therapist just a few years ago, and the same with family members … Why does society always want to blame the victim, and let the perpetrators off scott-free?

      I will never understand this in a million years. But reading what the Peace Corps did to you made me sick but your sharing your story set me free (at least part of the way). I hope it did the same for you, too. I am so glad you have come forward! Nothing will eer change until we all do.

      “The winds of grace blow all the time; all we need do is set our sails.”
      Dear God please show me The Way.
      Give us love and protection, and most of all JUSTICE.

      Reply

  2. December 11, 2015 @ 1:45 pm Wendy McCulley

    I’m so proud of you and your courageous act of shining light on your traumatic experience. Many blessings, light and love to you, Danielle.

    Reply

  3. December 11, 2015 @ 6:49 pm C

    Wow! So sorry for the horrible way you were taught to see what happened to you! Makes me glad that a) I did not report what happened to me (by an acquaintance in another PCV’s room) and b) that I was able to properly process it myself and realize that it wasn’t my fault and that I deserved to grieve for what I lost no matter how drunk (or semi unconscious I was at the time). My heart goes out to you and any others who experienced this kind of mishandling!

    Reply

  4. December 11, 2015 @ 7:04 pm Stephanie

    It makes me sick to the pit of my stomach that someone, many someones and a whole institution responded this way in such a vulnerable time. The tragic thing is I am not surprised. It’s not an isolated mentality and it needs to be spoken to! Someone else’s abhorrent actions are their responsibility, regardless of ANY circumstance…it is not our job to keep people around us from doing terrible things! Thank you for being so courageous. Know that you are not alone. So much love to you dear sister. I hope you’ve found the space and safety to continue healing in whatever way you need.

    Reply

  5. December 11, 2015 @ 10:45 pm Jen Schnorr

    This hit so close to home! I was blamed by peace corps for being attacked as well.. I felt so betrayed and alone, but realized that my job in my village was much more valuable than being considered,”in compliance” with PC… 🙂

    Reply

  6. December 12, 2015 @ 9:08 am Sara

    It takes a lot of courage and compassion to share your story no matter how long ago it was or was not. Thank you for your voice. The more we hear these reflections the more we can learn from them.

    Reply

  7. December 12, 2015 @ 9:13 am Jessy

    My heart started beating a little faster while I kept reading your article-it made me so angry! I want to learn more about this culture in Peace Corp as I’ve been thinking about doing more humanitarian work once my son is grown and out of high school. I thought Peace Corp was the best of the best to join.

    What ended up happening? What’s happened legally with the liability that they should face?

    I hope you are in a good place now. I know it’s hard to disclose matters like this, but you are helping others! I will be sending positive thoughts your way.

    Reply

  8. December 12, 2015 @ 11:57 am Mai

    Strength to you! Thank you for sharing your story. You are empowering every single woman out there with your courageous words and act. Im proud of you!

    Reply

  9. December 12, 2015 @ 5:44 pm Jess

    Thank you so much for sharing. This is a really important message and it is very courageous of you to share your story.

    Reply

  10. December 12, 2015 @ 8:31 pm Richard MacIntyre

    Let's hope this is the new Peace Corps pattern. It clearly wasn't the same 11 years ago. Here's an article this December from a Peace Corps volunteer who was raped just one year ago.

    This is the link: https://prairiestateofmind.wordpress.com/author/cmh834/ 

    Reply

  11. December 12, 2015 @ 10:16 pm Tam

    Thank you for sharing. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa in the late 80’s. I had a similar situation as was discouraged from sharing so I didn’t. My attacker was an unusually large man (6’3 and hefty) who also was quite powerful (diamond dealer). Saved by a knock on the door by one of my students (I was in my own home, dragged into my bedroom), I did manage to save myself before anything more happened by double fisting my hands and powering them up into his crotch while we was on top of me. He hobbled away but I knew nothing would come of this as was discouraged not to share as nothing would happened. And I believed that.

    Reply

  12. December 12, 2015 @ 11:34 pm S

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    Reply

  13. December 12, 2015 @ 11:42 pm AB

    Rape is never a woman’s fault! As a RPCV, I recognize the strange dichotomy of danger and potential that female PCVs bring to the table. We challenge the antiquated belief systems of many as well as the limits of our feminist views by putting our own safety at risk. Your strife, however awful, is unfortunately only a tiny fraction of what the women of the countries we serve undergo. How daunting and important is our fight to raise them up? Thank you for being a voice that spurs the conversation. Thank you for being a voice that begins to help understand the life of the women of the developing world.

    Reply

  14. December 13, 2015 @ 12:36 am Jami

    I’m so sorry that this happened to you and that this is a part of your life story. It shouldn’t have to be.

    Many people ask me if I would do Peace Corps again and a lot of emotions come to the surface for me: remorse, shame, distrust, anger and an feeling something that I wanted so much was taken from me too soon. I wasn’t raped in Morocco, but I was physically and sexually assaulted. When I reported it to Peace Corps I was asked why I was where I was, what I was wearing, and what I did to make this person do this to do me. I had bloodied knees, arms, chin, cheek and clothes from being dragged off my bike in broad daylight and assaulted by a young man who looked dehydrated and asked me for help. I was on the only road to the health clinic I had to ride to. I was in loose clothing that covered everything. I even had my hair covered in a scarf. When the Peace Corps asked me those questions, I lost it. I couldn’t believe that I was being blamed, and I couldn’t breathe because I realized there was no one to help out in the middle of the desert. I asked Peace Corps, “What the f*ck do you think I was wearing?” I was told that it was my fault and I was given an ultimatum to either apologize for using the word, “f*ck,” (because the host country national I said it to found it offensive) or I would be administratively separated. I was also reprimanded for fighting back and holding a pocket knife to the guy so that I could get away. Apparently, I used a weapon. I refused to apologize and was administratively separated. This same host country national tried to friend me on Facebook a few years ago and while I declined, it took a lot for me to not write back, “F*CK YOU!!!” I couldn’t believe this person thought we could ever be “friends.”

    Reading your story (and everyone else’s) gives me more courage, and makes me feel more empowered to release a lot of the shame and secrecy I’ve held onto regarding Peace Corps. Thank you!

    Reply

  15. December 13, 2015 @ 1:08 pm Mary Kate

    It was and never will be your fault. I am soo sorry that this happened to you. Thank you for showing so much courage. There is a petion at change.org to help reinstate Kellie Greene as Director of OVA, Found here. Sign if you would like. https://www.change.org/p/peace-corps-sentators-and-congress-persons-petition-to-reinstate-kellie-greene-as-peace-corps-victims-advocate?recruiter=429980338&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=copylink

    Reply

  16. December 13, 2015 @ 5:35 pm Elitza

    “It’s time for change.” This is a powerful piece and a call to action. Peace Corps: it’s time stand behind the women you inspire into the service of others. There is never a circumstance in which a woman is responsible for being raped. There is never a time that a man is justified in ignoring a plea to stop. Thank you, Danielle, for sharing your story, raising your voice, and empowering others to be the agent for change.

    Reply

  17. December 14, 2015 @ 6:33 am Dianne

    You are brave and strong! The courage it took to write this article in the voice you did is beautiful. Compassion for yourself is such an essential part of healing.

    Reply

  18. December 14, 2015 @ 10:53 am Samantha Garcia

    I was sexually assaulted by another Peace Corps volunteer during my service. There is evidence of plenty of cases of volunteer on volunteer assault/rape/violence (revealed via FOIA), and yet the most common recourse by the Peace Corps is simply sending the perpetrator home. There is a legitimate systemic problem within the Peace Corps and almost nothing being done to resolve it. It is an added layer of trauma that there is no justice for victims. Even worse, the victim is blamed, shamed into silence, or demonized. Yes, we take a risk in going abroad to work in developing countries. However, we never anticipated the deplorable way that we would be treated if the worst were to happen.

    Reply

  19. March 13, 2016 @ 10:06 pm Maya

    Heartbreaking Danielle, the letter made me feel sick and I’m so sorry you had to go through all of that. No way your fault. Your letter was so so sad and represents exactly how we are made to feel as females in a male dominating society in the worst sense. As a trained counsellor myself, how the counsellor could put so much pressure on you to make you feel you’d done anything wrong is horrific and sickening. By her indication we may as well all cover ourselves completely up instead of standing up to men and their indoctrinated upbringing that women can be treated how they wish. They then learn nothing and continue the cycle to pass the knowledge to other men and their children that it is okay to treat females this way. This is what is wrong with the world. Females are not taught that it is okay to stand up for ourselves. You are so brave and thank you for posting this. I was raped by a then boyfriend at age 16. I was sexually abused by an uncle at 6 years old. Is it therefore my fault in any of these cases that a male took advantage of me and and another male raped me against my will? I once asked a question of a group of women how can we fight male tyrranical behaviour to women around the world as an individual? I was told to use my power as a women in the west as an example of freedom, justice, truth and feminine power. We have power, it is so much more observably stronger in the west through our independence that we have fought good and hard for over the years, we need to use it and show that we are not afraid to use it and to show all generations of males that we can be treated respectfully and equally and not as an object. This then demonstrates and shows an example to other women around the world that we can speak up and although change may be slow it is undeniably possible. Thank you.

    Reply

  20. April 1, 2016 @ 10:53 am Danielle Dryke

    Thank you all so much for your amazing comments and support! It’s been very freeing to have the story go live and very touching to hear all of your reactions and experiences. I hope that together we can create a shift in perspective. Please continue to share the piece to build awareness.

    There was a article on my experiences recently published in the Guardian as well: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2016/mar/31/i-was-raped-and-my-counsellor-asked-me-what-i-had-been-wearing.

    I’m just getting started on a new website to share what’s helped me heal along the way and other musings at http://danielledryke.com. Would love to see you there! Thanks again!!

    Reply


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