Safety in International Volunteering
More than 1000 Peace Corps members, most of them women, have been
sexually-assaulted or killed in the last 10 years. The Peace
Corps has come under a great deal of criticism regarding how it
handles the safety of its members, particularly women, while they serve
MOST members have a safe, satisfying experience in the Peace Corps, as well
as other long-term volunteering abroad programs, but remember that those who
have a negative experience tend not to blog about such or to be featured on
the PeaceCorps web site. I have been stunned at what I have heard from women
who are former Peace Corps members first hand, let alone what I have
seen in reports
on television shows like 20/20.
The reality is that there are MANY international volunteering programs
that are also at fault regarding how they handle assaults on volunteers.
The same is true of international organizations that place paid staff -
many have poor, if largely unknown, track records regarding protecting
their staff while working abroad.
I am not at all attempting to tell you not to serve in an international
volunteering program. MOST women have a great experience serving in such a
program, and some feel so safe the entire time that they think safety
precautions and talk of such are overblown.
But I do think women in particular need to take precautions to stay safe
when serving in an international volunteering program.
My advice on what you can do to better ensure your safety abroad:
Your safety supersedes your volunteer commitment - if you are under
threat, do what you need to do to get away from that threat if your
volunteer-sending organization/host organization isn't responding
- Before you apply for any volunteering program, you have to be the
kind of person who knows how to explicitly express to your
volunteering sending agency, in the most decisive terms, when you feel
unsafe, and why you feel unsafe.
- Carry the address and phone number of your country's consulate or
embassy that is nearest to you (or where you will be) while working
abroad. If you get a cell phone in the country, put those phone numbers
on speed dial. Always, always be able to find that number.
- Absolutely insist on being in a home or accommodations where the
doors and windows of where you will sleep can be locked/blocked - or
where, if someone were coming through a window, you could hear them even
when you are dead sleep and
you have another exit.
- Read as much as you can before you go to a particular country -- and
seek out women authors as much as possible, because men can sometimes
gloss over cultural and safety concerns that women need to be very, very
aware of. I suggest you purchase and read the Lonely
Planet guide for the country where you will go, particularly the
sections on safety and the police. Go online to the Lonely
Planet Thorn Tree and read about the country you will be in, and
consider posting any questions you have regarding the culture of safety,
dealing with the police in that specific country, etc. Lonely Planet
books offer tips specifically for women, tailored for each country, as
- Become aware of cultural differences, specifically that pertain to
attitudes toward women (especially American women or any Western women),
and to single or divorced women (if you are such). I'm sad to say you
can pretty much assume it's dangerous in any developing country where
you will be serving to reveal that you are gay - and if someone tells
you that he or she is gay, you need to still be VERY cautious, as that
person may at some point feel the need to reveal your sexuality to
others to distract them from their secret.
- Always be aware of the people around you. Know who is behind you and
beside you, on public transport, in a restaurant, in the lobby of a
hotel, at a museum, and on and on. It doesn't have to be a scary thing -
it can actually really enhance your experience, help you to be all the
more present. Don't get lost in your smart phone? If you are going to
listen to music, don't read as well. Reading a book in public is fine,
but you need to regularly look up and around.
- When traveling alone, don't be the only woman or foreigner in a train
car. If you are on a bus, and you are a woman, sit with a woman or a
group of women or a family (they will sometimes "adopt" you for the trip
- by all means strike up a conversation with the kids or the women!), or
as near the driver as possible. If you are a woman, not get in a
mini-bus or any other transportation except maybe a cab that does
not have other women traveling.
- Avoid driving or traveling at night. That's not only to keep you from
being victimized; it's also a great way to substantially reduce your
chances of being in a road accident.
- If you have to wait for a bus or a train alone, either find a group
to stand near, or stand in a well-populated restaurant or business until
it's almost time for the bus or train to arrive, or stand where a train
station worker can see you. NEVER stand there alone listening to your
MP3 player or radio or whatever in both ears, even in day time.
- Avoid sitting or walking in empty areas (empty train car or an empty
street), no matter what time of day.
- Don't assume men in uniform are automatically safer than men not in
- In some countries - and this can include the USA - walking in a crowd,
as a woman, means your breasts or ass is going to get grabbed at least
once, or someone is going to rub their pelvis against you. It's gross,
it's humiliating, and if you know "Do not touch me!" in the local
language, by all means, yell it out forcefully. But then walk right on -
the last thing you want is to get encircled by a group of angry men or
boys. Your best bet: avoid crowds where you will come in body-to-body
contact with men.
- Be able to say these phrases calmly but forcefully and clearly to anyone
- supervisors, fellow volunteers, local people, host family
members, etc. (rehearse them!):
- "I am not going to ride with you/in that van. I will need a
different way of getting there."
- and, regarding transportation or accommodations "That is not
acceptable, because the door doesn't lock/the van is full of men and
I will be the only woman/this arrangement makes me uncomfortable and
feel unsafe/etc. Instead, I will need..."
- and "I see that you are offended, and I did not say this to offend
you, but I will not get in that car/ride on your scooter/stay here
- and "That is unacceptable. No."
- You need to know how to remove yourself from any situation where you
feel unsafe -- and that can mean every thing from walking out of an
event or away from someone you are working with and arranging your own
transportation back to a place where you DO feel safe, to leaving your
host family and staying in a guest house with a locked door, to
abandoning your assignment, leaving the village, and leaving the country
- and knowing how to arrange transportation yourself to do that. Have
your own escape plan in case the volunteer sending agency goes silent or
doesn't take your pleas for help seriously. Your safety is ALWAYS more
important than any worries you have about your career aspirations.
- Never be afraid of being impolite if you feel that someone is
stepping over your boundaries. And do not let ANYONE guilt you into
doing something that makes you feel uncomfortable, whether it's coming
into a shop or sharing a meal or talking to them or not calling your
volunteer sending agency to complain. If someone calls your behavior
insulting because you cut them off or walked away or said something that
hurt their feelings in your quest to be safe, too bad.
- Do not assume that your fellow volunteers are trustworthy merely
because they are also volunteering.
- Take self-defense classes before departure. This can help you feel
more assertive, even if you never use these skills.
- Never get drunk in a public place, and never let local people (and,
for women, don't let even other men from your program) see you drunk.
And when drinking with friends in private, pour the drink yourself, or
watch the drink being poured. If someone brings you a drink,
accidentally drop it and go yourself to get another.
- If anyone threatens you, or you simply feel threatened, get an escort
(other TRUSTED volunteers, or someone from your host organization that
you TRUST, or a group of old women) to walk with you in public at ALL
times, until you feel the threat has passed.
- There are cheap smart phones, under $100, such as those from Tracfone,
that won't work as phones
outside of the USA, but WILL work in every other way, such as accessing
the Internet (if wi-fi is available) and then using social media, Skype,
etc. Consider buying one that will be your emergency, hidden phone, in
addition to your main smart phone. Excellent tool to use to secretly
record audio of a meeting when needed.
- Upload photos, audio files and other info that documents threats or
harassment to a secure place on the cloud or the laptops of very trusted
colleagues, to protect yourself if your phone is every stolen or law
enforcement demands the phone. You could even send them all to a friend
back home, for safekeeping on his or her own computer.
- Email and call your volunteer sending agency every day if you feel
threatened, documenting the threats and unsafe circumstances in vivid
detail. Blog about it as well every day that no action is taken by your
volunteer sending agency. Continue to do so until action is taken or
they pay your expenses to leave or you need to leave on your own. Make
sure these dispatches have been saved somewhere that the volunteer
sending agency, your host family or anyone else could never delete them,
but your own family back home could access them if needed.
- Think, seriously and deliberately, before departure, and after
arrival in country, about what you would do if you were sexually
assaulted. Whom you would call first? Whom would you call next? Where
you would go immediately? How would you ask for help? Make sure calling
the emergency number of your embassy is in those steps you imagine, and
do NOT let any police officer, agency representative or friend talk you
out of making that call. Imagine the plan in your mind, clearly, and may
you never, ever have to follow that plan.
Here are lots more thoughts about
health & safety for USA women traveling, abroad or in the USA.
Return to my volunteer-related
- Vetting Organizations in Other Countries
A resource that can help you evaluate volunteer-placement organizations
that charge you for your placement as a volunteer, as well as for people
interested in partnering or supporting an organization abroad but
wanting to know it's a credible organization, that it's not some sort of
scam, or an 'organization' of just one person.
- Volunteering Internationally
Times have changed drastically in the last 30 years regarding Americans
and other "westerners" volunteering in other countries. The emphasis in
local relief and development efforts is to empower local people, and to
hire local people, whenever possible, to address their own issues, build
their own capacities, and give them employment. This strategy is much
more beneficial to local communities than to bring in an outside
volunteer. That said -- the days of international volunteers are NOT
numbered: there will always be a need for international volunteers,
either to fill gaps in knowledge and service in a local situation, or
because a more neutral observer/contributor is required. This new page
provides tips on gaining the skills and experience that are critically
needed to volunteer overseas.
- Volunteering To Help After Major
Whenever a disaster strikes, hundreds -- even thousands -- of citizens
in the USA start contacting various organizations in an effort to try to
volunteer onsite at the disaster site. But what many of these people
don't realize is that spontaneous volunteers with no training and no
affiliation can actually cause more problems than they alleviate in a
disaster situation, particularly regarding disaster locations far from
their home. If you want to be a part of the mobilization for a future
disaster, here are tips to help you get into "the system," get training,
and be in a position to make a real difference.
realities of voluntourism: use with caution
Voluntourism is really awful and really good. I'm totally against it and
I support it. Confused yet? This opinion
piece is my attempt to explain why voluntourism sometimes works
and why, very often, it's dreadful.
- Hosting International Volunteers
More and more local organizations in developing countries are turning to
local expertise, rather than international volunteers, to support their
efforts. However, the need for international volunteers remains, and
will for many, many years to come. This resource provides tips for local
organization in a developing countries interested in gaining to
- transire benefaciendo:
"to travel along while doing good."
Advice for those wanting to make their travel more than sight-seeing and
- How to Get a Job with the United
Nations or Other International Humanitarian or Development
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