Peace Corps Hearing Will Lead to Legislation
By Jonathan Pearson on Wednesday, May 11th, 2011
There were broad expressions of bi-partisanship at Wednesday’s hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee to examine the issue of physical and sexual assault against Peace Corps volunteers.
There was general praise for the mission of the Peace Corps and the work of Peace Corps Volunteers. “They are American angels abroad who represent everything that is good and right about our country,” said Congressman Ted Poe (R-TX). “No agency with such a modest budget has done more to extend its work around the world,” added Congressman Howard Berman (D-CA).”
At the same time, there was deep concern over testimonies of violence against volunteers and numerous instances of inadequate response from agency staff. “I have never been so incensed and enraged by the actions of an agency,” stated Congresswoman Jean Schmidt (R-OH). Gerald Connolly (D-VA) said “What troubles me most was there was a lack of sensitivity and compassion.”
And – there were universal expressions of thanks and praise for the courage of witnesses who began the hearing with their testimony.
- Read the written testimony submitted by all witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing.
- Watch video on C-Span of the 3-hour hearing
- Visit NPCA’s Volunteer Safety and Security page for further background
“I thought I was alone in my experience,” said Carol Clark, a Nepal volunteer in the mid-1980′s who testified about being raped by her Nepali Program Director. Carol said at the time, she was not offered counseling, was mistreated by medical personnel and was instructed to tell others that her departure from service was due to dysentery. She noted the Peace Corps has had almost thirty years to address these issues and has fallen short.
“Help us build a better, stronger, safer Peace Corps so our daughters can build a better world.”
A similar account was shared by Dr. Karestan Chase Koenen, a rape survivor who served in Niger in 1991. Currently an Associate Professor at Columbia University who teaches about psychological trauma, Dr. Koenen said research shows that a lack of support and response following a sexual assault significantly increases the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder. Peace Corps has been updating their protocols to better address sexual assault. Koenen said “Though they have evolved, they remain dangerously inadequate.”
Jessica Smochek told the committee that after she had begged to be moved to a safer site, she was raped and beaten while serving in Bangladesh in 2004. “Rather than feeling safe and supported, I felt belittled and blamed.”
The survivors noted they continue to be big supporters of the Peace Corps, with Clark saying “I still believe in the ideals of the Peace Corps.” Several expressed gratitude for the response they have received from current Peace Corps leadership and hope that their testimony would not lead to weakening or any further reduction in funds for the agency. “I’d be devastated if my testimony were used to stop Peace Corps funding,”said Koenen.
All noted that legislation is needed to fully address the issue, in part because of the decades-long incidents of concern and also because of the regular turnover of political appointees and staff.
Director Williams Testimony
In his testimony, Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams outlined steps that have already been taken to address the issue, but pledged to work with Congress and survivors, acknowledging that “more needs to be done.” Williams expressed an openness to working with Congress on legislation, noting that the agency is already in conversation with the office of Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) on possible whistleblower legislation.
Director Williams also said Peace Corps would immediately replace a current training video entitled “Serving Safely.” Survivors objected to the video saying it includes interviews women who were assaulted, but noted that all of the incidents involved alcohol, with the women speaking apologetically about their own actions. “Blaming the victim will not continue in today’s Peace Corps.” He also stated that the agency has been developing a more comprehensive sexual assault training program that will be ready for use in the field this summer.
Along with praising survivors for their courage and commitment, Director Williams also praised the work of the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) “RAINN has provided a roadmap” for moving forward, and Williams pledged that Peace Corps would provide “compassionate victim-centered support.”
When asked by Congressman Donald Payne (D-NJ) how the recent $26 million reduction in Peace Corps’ current funding would affect its response, Director Williams said the agency “is not going to compromise on the health, safety and security of volunteers,” adding that the cuts may force Peace Corps to not expand into new countries or have as many volunteers in existing locations. When asked by Congresswoman Anne Marie Buerkle (R-NY) whether past calls to greatly expand Peace Corps are prudent objectives given the hearing testimony, Williams stated his belief that the agency – with appropriate funding – could grow and manage its responsibilities. (Related: See the press release issued by Peace Corps today, May 11, here.)
Peace Corps Inspector General Kathy Buller was the final hearing witness. “While the agency has made strides, several problems remain.”
Buller noted that one of the most common safety and security issues identified during country of service audits is the need for host country staff to undergo background security investigations. Buller said 44% of the 63 countries audited since 2004 have not complied with that request, adding that since a 2009 revision included security checks for short term contractors, 11 of 15 countries had failed to meet this requirement.
When asked by Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) if during her three years as Inspector General, could she recall an incident in which Peace Corps has been pro-active in addressing a concern, Buller replied, “They are primarily reactive. I can’t think of a case off the top of my head where they have (been pro-active).”
Follow this link to read the written testimony submitted by all witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing.