An in-depth work of investigative journalism by USA TODAY brings together deeply troubling stories of harm suffered by women who have been victims of sexual assault while serving as Volunteers. Peace Corps must do better.
On April 23, USA TODAY published an in-depth investigative piece chronicling the experiences of multiple women who became victims of sexual assault while serving as Peace Corps Volunteers. Their stories are devastating. And the statistics cited in the article about the prevalence of sexual assault are profoundly disturbing.
Peace Corps Acting Director Carol Spahn issued a statement the same day that the article appeared, outlining how the agency is addressing these very serious issues. All incidents chronicled in the story have been referred to the Peace Corps Inspector General for investigation. And Spahn made sure that returned Volunteers know they can reach out directly to the Inspector General, as well as to the agency.
“We owe it to these women to read their stories — and to truly hear what they are saying,” said NPCA Board of Directors Chair Maricarmen Smith-Martinez in a statement. “Those of us who have been victims of sexual assault know firsthand that it takes immense courage to come forward, especially given how the initial reports of these women were handled. And let us be unequivocal: There must be zero tolerance when it comes to sexual misconduct within the ranks of Peace Corps staff. We owe it to all Volunteers — past, present, and future — as well as their families, to ensure that Peace Corps does better.”
“We owe it to all Volunteers — past, present, and future — as well as their families, to ensure that Peace Corps does better.”
In early March, at an event marking the 60th anniversary of the Peace Corps, former Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet recounted once again how, while she served as a Volunteer in Western Samoa in the 1980s, she was a victim of repeated sexual assault by a Peace Corps staff member — and the agency failed to take action.
Since then, some progress has been made. The Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act led to the establishment of a sexual assault advisory council in 2013. The Sam Farr/Nick Castle Peace Corps Reform Act, passed in 2018, includes strengthened criteria for hiring overseas doctors and medical support staff and outlines a number of critical requirements. Among them: evaluation of all medical staff for compliance with all relevant policies and guidelines; and designated staff at each post to serve victims of sexual assault.
As NPCA’s Smith-Martinez noted, at this moment, when no Volunteers are in the field, there is an opportunity and a responsibility for Peace Corps to conduct a thorough review of the Farr/Castle law and other previously passed legislation to ensure full compliance in all aspects. “We are very concerned that this is not the case at this time,” she wrote.
The agency is implementing a new Security Incident Management System to integrate systems for reporting and tracking sexual assaults and other crimes. That is part of the solution. Also part of the solution: whistleblower protection for Volunteers, included in the Peace Corps legislation introduced by Rep. John Garamendi in March. Emma Tremblay, who served as a Volunteer in Ecuador and is one of the women who share their heartbreaking stories in the USA TODAY piece, notes that passing this legislation is one way to show support for her and other Volunteers.
But an agency in which sexual assault has metastasized in recent years has tremendous work to do. April was Sexual Assault Awareness Month. “This is not something that we should think about in the abstract,” writes Smith-Martinez. “Every victim of an assault — like the women who share their stories in this article — is a person whose life has been deeply harmed.” Smith-Martinez also underscores that “While this particular USA TODAY piece focuses on the stories of women who are white, Peace Corps and others must ensure that victims who are people of color receive full support throughout their service and afterward. Racial justice and equity demand it.”
Note this as well: Kathy Buller is the Peace Corps’ inspector general. She is also executive chair of the legislation committee for the Council of the Inspector General on Integrity and Efficiency. Just days before the story appeared, she testified before Congress on the importance of the independence of the work done by inspectors general.
This story originally appeared in the spring 2021 edition of WorldView magazine.