Bill would require safeguards for Peace Corps volunteers

Rep. Jean Schmidt
In the 50 years since President Kennedy proposed the idea of the Peace Corps, we’d be right to expect that it had grown into a well-traveled ambassador for what is good about America – the compassion and generosity of our people.

Peace Corps volunteers, inspired by optimism and high ideals, have traveled to the four corners of the world – bringing knowledge and education to oppressed people. More than 200,000 Americans, nearly all of them college graduates in their 20s, have served as volunteers. Most of them reflect proudly on what they did in the countries where they worked.

As we have come to learn lately, though, some volunteers have returned damaged, victims of rape, assault and other forms of violence. Some were dispatched to remote villages with inadequate training and no protection against hazards that were often simply dismissed by their supervisors.

On May 11, 2011, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, held a hearing to investigate the problems of safety and security for our Peace Corps volunteers.

Several former volunteers, all of whom were raped during their tenure in the Peace Corps, bravely testified to the horror of their experiences. Another witness, Ms. Catherine Lois Puzey, shared her painful memories of learning that her daughter, Kate, while in the service of the Peace Corps, had been murdered.

“At no time during our 10-week training were we taught how to protect ourselves,” said a former volunteer in Bangladesh. “We were told we might experience harassment, but that it was cultural, it could be laughed off, and we’d get used to it.”

There was no laughing this off. She was eventually gang-raped. The response of the country director for the Peace Corps in Bangladesh was to blame the victim. Common decency and good sense should have been enough for her bosses to have realized that they’d handled this badly. She was now the one who needed compassion, but, sadly, she received none from anyone at the Peace Corps.

This week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee considered the Foreign Relations Act. It included a bill I co-sponsored that will require the Peace Corps to start sexual assault risk-reduction and response training, develop a sexual assault protocol and guidelines, and establish a victims’ advocates program and a Sexual Assault Advisory Council.

Kate Puzey and some of her fellow volunteers deserved better from the Peace Corps. In Kate’s memory, and for the protection of current and future volunteers, I look forward to its passage. The Peace Corps’ volunteers deserve nothing less.

Jean Schmidt is the U.S. Congresswoman serving Ohio’s Second District.