Tomorrow, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs will vote on the “Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011.” It is a long time coming.
In 2007, Kate Puzey, a valedictorian from Georgia, arrived in Benin as a Peace Corps volunteer to teach local children English. When she discovered that girls in her class were being sexually assaulted by another teacher, she notified Peace Corps staff in Benin’s capital. While Peace Corps decided to fire the predator, they never told Kate. Kate was now in serious danger. This man was dangerous, and Peace Corps knew that Kate specifically told them how to contact her in the event they took any disciplinary action because she feared retribution. Days later, Kate Puzey, at the tender age of 24, was found on her front porch with her throat slit. Her fear became an unfortunate reality.
Three years earlier, the Peace Corps sent “Jane” a 23-year-old bright eyed and innocent woman to Bangladesh. It was not long before six local men began following her home. One day they surrounded her, grabbed her, shoved her to the ground, and began touching and kissing her before eventually leaving. When she reported the attack to Peace Corps staff, they ignored her. Then, on December 6, 2004, these same men dragged her into an abandoned courtyard, raped her, and beat her until she begged for them to just kill her. In response, Peace Corps took away her cell phone, told her not to tell any of her fellow Volunteers, and sent her back to Washington, D.C. where she was subsequently blamed for the attack.
Unfortunately, Kate and “Jane” are not alone. There are dozens of testimonies of former Volunteers going back 30 years that reveal systematic negligence on behalf of the Peace Corps with regard to both confidentiality and sexual assault response. Volunteers reported being placed in dangerous situations only to be told that moving was not an option. They talked about how they could not report their rapes because of all the people in Peace Corps that would find out. And, throughout all of the testimonies, there was a common theme: blame the victim.
When I met with Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams in February, he seemed to understand the gravity of the situation. And to his credit, he has taken some important first steps towards reform, such as hiring Peace Corps’ first Victim Advocate in May to help support Volunteers who were raped or physically assaulted and beginning to implement new training. Still much more needs to be done- as affidavits from current Volunteers testify- to ensure that the culture of neglect and abuse of Peace Corps Volunteers is changed.
With the strong support of the former Peace Corps victims and survivors, RAINN (the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization), and the National Peace Corps Association, the “Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011,” requires the Peace Corps to follow best practices in the sexual assault field, sets up an Office of Victim Advocacy to help victims receive services, puts an advisory council in place to review Peace Corps’ sexual assault policy and implementation, and establishes new confidentiality requirements.
Spreading goodwill and working for the good of others, Peace Corps Volunteers are some of the best diplomats that we could ever hope to have. I like to call them the ‘American Angels Abroad.’ They go to remote areas of the world, far from home, far from their families. They give up the conveniences of America for the primitive conditions of their host country. Yet they go because they believe that the sacrifices are worth it to help those in need throughout the world. This bill will not change Peace Corps overnight nor replace Congress’ vital role of oversight, but I believe it will push Peace Corps to become a better institution and to make sure that our ‘American Angels Abroad’ are safe and protected.
Rep. Poe serves Texas’s second district. He is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He is also co-founder of the Congressional Victims Rights Caucus.