One of the most common worries I hear from home, both before I left and now that I’m here, is that of the safety of the Peace Corps volunteer. Are we safe in our places of service? Does Peace Corps take care of us? What about for women? These are all excellent questions that certainly filled a great deal of my waking hours prior to joining Peace Corps, and I know they still keep my parents awake on the nights where our network doesn’t work and we haven’t been in touch in weeks.
In essence, it all boils down to this: Is the Peace Corps safe?
With much deliberation and qualification: yes.
That’s a different ‘yes’ for women than it is for men. It’s a different ‘yes’ for gay, transgender, handicapped, non-white, and any other variety of volunteer than it is for the white male volunteer. It’s a different ‘yes’ depending on your country, and for the rural volunteer than for the volunteer in the city.
That ‘yes’ also hasn’t applied to everyone. Terrible, tragic things do happen to Peace Corps volunteers. I’ve had scary experiences of my own where my safety did not fall into the ‘yes’ category at the time. Those dangerous experiences should not be discounted or their victims minimized. However, those experiences should also not dictate the overall understanding of safety in Peace Corps. With over 8,000 volunteers currently serving, I’d challenge anyone to draw a line through 8,000 people in the United States and not come across crime and unsafe scenarios. Just as life at home is not always safe, being abroad also has its risks. For most of us, it’s just different risks.
I feel it’s only fair that I use myself as an example. As most of my readers know, I am from Alaska. My state regularly helps lead the nation in instances of sexual assault and rape, alcoholism, domestic violence, and suicide. Our two largest cities were ranked #1 and #2 unsafest cities for women within the last few years. As a young female, I am actually much, much safer here in my rural Zambian village than I would be walking the streets of Anchorage or Fairbanks. At home, my safety hinged on separating myself from others when out of my own community. Many of my friends carry weapons in their vehicles for defense against strangers on the road, or the occasional large mammal on a hiking trail. Here, it would be challenging to find a firearm not tied to a policeman’s hip anywhere in my district of nearly 100,000 people. Peace Corps service certainly includes inherent risks, but generally speaking, they’re just different risks than we have back home. In Alaska, I might worry about bears, icy roads, extreme cold or strangers with guns. Here, I worry more about grabby drunks, infectious disease, corrupt officials, and the dangers of being a passenger on African roads (truly my greatest safety threat).
Peace Corps service, I would argue, is probably safer in many respects than casual travel. Volunteers are required to integrate into their communities and become part of the fabric of life in their host country. Of course, we will always be foreigners to a certain extent, but our language and cultural skills, technical training, and Peace Corps selected sites all give us a layer of protection from harm that would be extremely difficult to replicate for the casual traveler. We also have a 24-hour officer of safety and security and Peace Corps staff willing to help us out of nearly any bad situation, no matter what hour of the night their phones may ring.
Perhaps more than anything, Peace Corps is pretty frank about the dangers of our host countries during our training sessions. As a volunteer in Zambia, I ride in all kinds of transportation (including the occasional hitch-hiking, which is discouraged by Peace Corps) with perfect strangers, and am regularly alone in the field with only host country nationals, most of which are male. But, I feel I’ve been sensitized well to the realities of this lifestyle, and know how to remain alert to danger, recognize culturally dangerous situations, how to extract myself from them, or who to call for help if I can’t take care of it on my own. I am regularly alone in the field with my primarily male counterparts and fish farmers, and feel that any of them would happily take me into their homes and feed me if I needed help. Perhaps most important, Peace Corps taught me how to gain the respect of my community, how to blend into the Zambian culture as much as a white Alaskan gal can, and how to integrate into my community.
But, let’s look again at safety from the perspective of being a woman. It is different to be a female in the Peace Corps. We face many challenges that male volunteers are never forced to consider. In Zambia, my sex is a major part of my safety and security. I think before I left, and even now, many of my loved ones were very worried about my becoming a victim of sexual assault or rape. Without wishing to reach for melodrama, those are possibilities here. But, they were possibilities back in Alaska, too. As a woman, I face a lot of harassment, and that is challenging for all female volunteers across the Peace Corps world. But, I also have an incredible support network, and my harassment (while incredible obnoxious and I loathe it daily) is also an opportunity for me to model gender-based respect and the strength of women (not to mention dispel myths about American women) every time I stand up to it. Peace Corps acknowledges the differences in safety issues between male and female volunteers, and I’ve been generally impressed by their willingness to always respond to my concerns promptly and take them seriously, no matter how trivial they may seem.
The topic of safety and security in Peace Corps is one that could fill a dozen blog posts, and indeed, I’ll be revisiting this topic again soon. However, I think it’s important to say this: Peace Corps (at least in Zambia) works hard to prioritize and respond to the safety (both physical and otherwise) of volunteers. I’ve never ‘worked’ for an organization that cared as much about what is going on inside my head as the rest of my body, or about my emotional and mental safety as my physical state. Peace Corps cannot protect me from everything, and they emphasize greatly (I think for purposes of empowerment) that ultimately we volunteers are responsible for our day-to-day safety and security. Realistically, that empowerment, our extensive training, and the Peace Corps safety net of resources and staff are the best system available to 200+ volunteers spread over a huge area and often many kilometers from the nearest police station or hospital.
So, is Peace Corps safe? I argue: yes. Peace Corps is a safe way to explore other parts of the world, to serve your country (certainly safer than the armed forces), and to engage yourself in meaningful and life-changing cross-cultural exchange. But, the safety of a volunteer often depends heavily on the volunteers own efforts, decisions, and judgements, and perhaps equally as much on circumstances which are sometimes beyond our control. For those of you who are wondering if you can safely serve overseas, or if it’s safe for your child to join the Peace Corps, I would encourage you to contact Peace Corps and have your questions answered. My take: it’s generally safe in as much as your every day life in the U.S. is safe, and often safer.
Could terrible things happen to me here in Zambia? Yes. Do I have the tools to help prevent them? Yes. Is my experience typical? Probably, though I cannot (and will not) speak for others in this case. Each volunteer experience is different and unique unto itself, and shouldn’t be compared. As a woman, do I feel safe? Yes, much more so than I do at home in Alaska’s major cities.
Despite this post and others that have been written or that I might write in the future, safety will always be a major concern of families sending their volunteers abroad. One of things that helped my own family the most was talking to current and returned volunteers. With that, please feel free to contact me using the “contact me” tab at the top of the page if you have questions about my experience or Peace Corps safety policies in general. I welcome questions, and will respond as quickly as I’m able.
Feel free, be safe, and fish on.