In August 2013, Kayla Mueller was working in Aleppo, Syria, when she was kidnapped by terrorist group ISIS. Mueller, an American volunteer with humanitarian aid group Support to Life, was stationed in Turkey along its border with Syria. During a trip to Aleppo, Mueller and her Syrian boyfriend were attacked outside of a Doctors Without Borders hospital. On February 6, 2015 ISIS released a statement via Twitter stating that Mueller had been killed during airstrikes by the Jordanian government. The group later released images of her body to her family, who confirmed that the body was, in fact, Mueller. While the evidence of how she died is inconclusive, Mueller’s death raises questions about the dangers women face when volunteering abroad.
While any trip abroad involves some risk, female volunteers face unique challenges, especially when it comes to countries with a reputation for human rights violations. The Peace Corps, one of the largest volunteer programs in the world, has served 140 countries since its creation in 1961. The organization currently has 6,818 volunteers spread across 64 countries. Sixty-three percent of their volunteers are women.
Several of these countries have experienced conflict even within the last two years. Instability creates many risks for all foreign volunteers, particularly women. An example is West Africa, where Boko Haram has been extending its range into Niger and Cameroon, two countries with Peace Corps sites. The group, which seeks to eradicate Western influence, funds some of its terrorist activities by ransoming captives and selling kidnapped women into the sex trade. Instability within host countries means increased risk for many volunteers, and in many cases it’s difficult for programs to mitigate these risks or resolve issues when they arise.
The Peace Corps is not the only program offering women the chance to volunteer abroad; other organizations like Global Volunteers and Go Eco offer week to month long programs. Often referred to as voluntourism, these short trips can present very serious dangers to women, in part due to the lack of in-depth training prior to travel. Not only do they receive little training, women must navigate their host country’s culture towards women. Female volunteers serving in countries in which women are in the lowest social group are at a distinct disadvantage, because most are coming from countries where women have more rights. These shorter programs also mean that women do not have the chance to become integrated into the community, which sometimes provides the most reliable protection.
The Peace Corps tries to minimize risk to volunteers through several different initiatives, including cooperating with the State Department and international organizations to monitor threats and coordinate evacuations. They also have in-country security officials, and several reporting methods volunteers are required to use when traveling from their site. Despite this, the Peace Corps’s annual report on crimes against volunteers found that 209 female volunteers reported experiencing some form of sexual assault in 2013. From 2000 to 2010, statistics show that 1,000 female volunteers reported experiencing some form of sexual assault during their tour.
Sexual assault is not the only danger that female volunteers face. In 2009, Kate Puzey, a volunteer school teacher was murdered in Benin after reporting to her supervisors that a fellow teacher was molesting girls at the school where she was working. The teacher, a local member of the community, found out about Puzey’s accusations and killed her in an attempt to protect his reputation. Kate’s death brought about the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, which was signed by President Obama in 2011. The act is designed to provide better protection to volunteers who are victims of violent crimes while volunteering abroad.
Despite reports of this nature, more than 17,000 people applied in 2014 for a two year tour with the Peace Corps. The desire to volunteer has only increased since the Peace Corps was founded, as evidenced by the number of applicants last year. There are always risks involved in traveling, and the work done by volunteers like Puzey and Mueller should be recognized and celebrated. However, with increasing instability in places like West Africa, and volunteers in 34 of the 65 countries served reporting having experienced some type of physical or sexual assault, the question must be asked: Is volunteering worth it?