These were the words that I saw this evening on my WordPress Dashboard as one of the queries that had led someone to my blog via Google.
I suppose that it is evident that someone would not google this highly specific phrase out of curiosity as to what such an experience would be like.
Surprisingly, despite the seriously high statistics of rape in New Delhi and other areas in India (studies from 2011 estimate that one woman is raped every half hour in India – National Crime Bureau statistics ), nothing relevant appears on Google for this query. My blog is actually the first result since I wrote about sexual harassment and the prevalence of rape/crimes against women in New Delhi.
I believe that is because while the serious problem of rape in India is undermined and not given enough attention or political support in general, the risks and dangers that female international volunteers face are even less mediatized and known.
I’m the last person to tell women NOT to volunteer around the world, and to shy away from places with major problems such as New Delhi, since I do so myself and lived in New Delhi for three months, but I believe that it is my right as a woman and solo traveler/volunteer to make sure that other women are well-informed about the risks that they are undertaking as well. Unfortunately, not all volunteer missions leave international volunteers with a sense of well-being, peace, and empathy with the local culture. Women, in particular, are vulnerable to the dangers of living in places where they may be perceived in an undesirable way and where they are easily recognizable because of their appearance.
When I saw this query, I immediately thought of the US Peace Corps. It was my dream since high school to join the Peace Corps. For those of you who are not familiar with the organization, the Peace Corps is an American effort to support development projects in fairly poor/unstable regions around the world. While there is no upper age limit restriction to serving on the Peace Corps, candidates must be college graduates. The selection process is fairly competitive as well, based on factors such as skills specialization and social development experience. The commitment is two and a half years and there are no exceptions. For me, the attraction was simply that of being supported by the US government while I do what I love to do – work directly with people on projects that built community and sustainability. While there are many different areas that one can work in – and indeed, some people teach English and that is considered “building community” as well – I would have liked to focus on projects that benefited women and girls, particularly their education and vocational skills training.
Several years ago, though, I became much more wary about the Peace Corps. It wasn’t simply because I had read some books by former Peace Corps recruits or met some disillusioned alumni. It was because my mom sent me some articles and interviews and for the first time in my life, I realized that her constant overworrying had some merit. The problem is that Peace Corps Volunteers live alone in the communities that they commit to. Moreover, they do not choose the specific areas; Peace Corps does. Each candidate lists his or her preferences, but it is ultimately the organization that chooses where their placement will be. Female Peace Corps volunteers live exactly where they are told to live, and historically, do not receive day-to-day monitoring or assistance (I am not implying that they should – I understand that this would be a huge use of resources). However, Peace Corps could do a lot to improve safety/emergency resources for their female volunteers and also provide them with pyschological support during their commitments as volunteers. I know that when I was living in New Delhi, I needed to talk with a pyschologist because of the sexual harassment that I faced. It made the experience at least bearable for me, especially since my psychologist had adopted a Nepalese girl and knew what girls who looked Nepalese or more Northeastern faced in New Delhi. She made me feel that my experiences and emotions were valid and that I was not a bad person for not loving my environment. Peace Corps has received much negative press recently however, because instead of trying to help their volunteers through difficult moments and especially after crises and emergencies such as rape, they have made their female volunteers feel as if they alone were responsible for their traumatic experiences in an effort to prevent them from speaking out publicly and thus preserve the image of the organization to Americans and around the world. Here is an eye-opening article by the New York Times about the experiences that not one, but many, female Peace Corps volunteers have had: “Peace corps Volunteers Speak Out on Rape”.
I wish that these dangers didn’t exist for women who are brave enough to leave their homes and emphathetic enough to try to integrate themselves into a very different community. But it is important to thoroughly research where you will volunteer, and to identify resources that are available for you in times of crises. The local police is not always dependable. In India, they also stigmatize victims and judge cases of rape based on how the victim was dressed or because, walking around at 7 pm, she “was asking for it”. Language barriers can also be issues. In any case, every woman who volunteers in a different country should know that first and foremost, she is in a foreign country and is thus unfamiliar with certain places, behaviors, and aspects of the local culture. She should do everything to learn as much as possible, with the aid of locals, as it is she alone and only her who can listen to her instinct and protect herself from certain situations. Secondly, she should understand that it is her right to leave any situation if she feels uncomfortable or unsafe. I certainly did so in New Delhi. I am not sure if anything serious like rape would have happened to me, but I knew that I did not feel comfortable or safe there, and I did not want to live in an air-conditioned Western-expatriate formed bubble in order to feel that way, so I left. Finally, she must realize, really realize, that it is NOT HER FAULT if anything happens to her. There are horrible things that happen to people who do not at all deserve them. I cannot think of many things more traumatizing than imagining that you will go live in a community and bond with the people there, hoping to contribute to a local cause, and then being raped. It is not a cold bucket of water, it is a stab to the heart. We should recognize that all rape victims are victims and deserve our recognition and support.
To that person who entered that query – this post is for you. I don’t know what else to say except that I was there too, and I am truly sorry for your experience. I hope that your family and friends are with you at this time, and that they support you during the process to heal and move forward. I am here, as well. You can email me or find me on facebook, and I am more than happy to talk with you.