Communications Intern 2 posted an articleLet’s ensure that Congress passes the most sweeping Peace Corps legislation in a generation. see more
Following on big news from the Senate, let’s ensure that Congress passes the most sweeping Peace Corps legislation in a generation.
By Jonathan Pearson
In these times when division and discord define politics across the nation, recent months tell a different story when it comes to support for the Peace Corps. Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate have come together to bring forth meaningful bipartisan legislation.
On June 23, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee introduced the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2022 (S. 4466). Led by Chair Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Ranking Member James Risch (R-ID), the bill had six bipartisan co-sponsors out of the gate.
Additional co-sponsors joined the bill in July and August, and at time of publication they include Ben Cardin (D-MD), Todd Young (R-IN), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Rob Portman (R-OH), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), John Cornyn (R-TX), Chris Coons (D-DE), Gary Peters (D-MI), Brian Schatz (D-HI), and Susan Collins (R-ME). On July 19, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the bill on a voice vote. It now awaits being taken up by the full Senate.
“This once-in-a-generation bill implements necessary reforms to make certain the Peace Corps has what is required to meet the needs of its Volunteers around the world.”
—Senator Robert Menendez, Chair, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
“This once-in-a-generation bill implements necessary reforms to make certain the Peace Corps has what is required to meet the needs of its Volunteers around the world,” said Sen. Menendez in July. “From including necessary student loan reforms to affirming a path to federal government employment for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, this legislation also ensures that the agency better reflects the United States’ rich diversity and talent.”
As Sen. Risch noted in a release introducing the legislation, “The 2022 Peace Corps Reauthorization bill is a bipartisan effort to reauthorize the Peace Corps for the first time in over a decade and to provide necessary reforms to improve the safety and security of Volunteers as they re-enter the field. By reauthorizing the Sexual Assault Advisory Council, mandating security briefings, improving whistleblower protections, and adding a new authority to suspend Peace Corps Volunteers without pay in the event of misbehavior, the Peace Corps will be able to better support Volunteers at home and abroad.”
“The 2022 Peace Corps Reauthorization bill is a bipartisan effort to reauthorize the Peace Corps for the first time in over a decade and to provide necessary reforms to improve the safety and security of Volunteers as they re-enter the field. By reauthorizing the Sexual Assault Advisory Council, mandating security briefings, improving whistleblower protections, and adding a new authority to suspend Peace Corps Volunteers without pay in the event of misbehavior, the Peace Corps will be able to better support Volunteers at home and abroad.”
—Senator James Risch, Ranking Member, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
The bipartisan legislation also serves as the Senate companion to H.R. 1456, introduced in March 2021 by Representatives John Garamendi (D-CA) and Garret Graves (R-LA); it was approved overwhelmingly by the House Foreign Affairs Committee in September 2021. Senate and House leaders will be discussing and strategizing on how to best bring this legislation before their respective chambers for a vote.
About the Legislation
The House and Senate bills contain a broad range of improvements and reforms for the agency; for current and returned Volunteers; and for the communities where they serve. Both bills further efforts to address the health, safety, security, and well-being of Volunteers. They bolster efforts to strengthen diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. And several long-sought improvements to support RPCVs and honor their service are included. While the bills have many similarities, there are significant differences which will eventually need to be reconciled.
Key elements that both bills have in common
Non-Competitive Eligibility: Traditionally, returning Volunteers receive one year of non-competitive eligibility (NCE) for federal employment. Both the House and Senate bills increase this to two years of NCE.
Paid Health Insurance: Returning Volunteers currently receive one month of paid health insurance. Both bills would extend that to two months. The Senate bill also ensures Volunteers receive adequate health exams in preparing for service; care during service, including access to mental health professionals; and a path to obtain insurance through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act after service.
Protecting Volunteers Against Reprisal or Retaliation: Whistleblower protections currently extend to staff. Both bills would provide Volunteers with protections against reprisal or retaliation.
Medical Education, Guidance, and Menstrual Hygiene: Both bills provide further medical staff education and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control on malaria prophylaxis. They also strengthen access and affordability for menstrual/hygiene products for Volunteers wherever they are serving.
Returning to Service after Evacuation: Both bills seek to ensure that future Volunteers facing evacuation are afforded expedited opportunities to return to service.
Elements found in each bill — but with key differences
Peace Corps Funding: H.R. 1456 proposes increased funding for the Peace Corps in the coming years, while S. 4466 continues to propose flat funding of $410.5 million for each of the next five years.
Disability Pay Rates for RPCVs: Both bills propose a long needed increase in the workers compensation rates for RPCVs who are disabled due to service related injuries or illness. The House bill recommends a compensation increase of roughly $1,000/month, while the Senate bill recommends a roughly $300/month increase.
Extend the Work of the Sexual Assault Advisory Council: Both bills extend the work of the congressionally mandated Sexual Assault Advisory Council, currently scheduled to expire at the end of 2023. The House bill extends the work through 2025; the Senate bill extends the work through 2027.
Provisions found only in House legislation
Respect for Peace Corps Volunteers Act: This long-sought House legislation would formally allow the use of the Peace Corps symbol at gravesites and in death notices.
Virtual Service Programs: The House bill would formally authorize the agency’s current Virtual Service Pilot program.
Domestic Service During Emergencies: The House bill would codify circumstances allowing other federal agencies to seek use of Peace Corps Volunteers during domestic emergencies, such as the partnership with FEMA community vaccination centers in 2021 to assist with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Provisions found only in Senate legislation
Student Loan Relief: The Senate bill would provide certain student loan relief for RPCVs, including suspension of interest during service and public service credit for Volunteers as part of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program run by the Department of Education.
Suspend Agency Employees Without Pay for Misconduct: In response to the tragic killing of Rabia Issa, a mother of three in Tanzania who was struck by a vehicle driven by a Peace Corps employee in 2018, the Senate legislation gives the agency the authority to suspend an employee without pay if they are engaged in serious misconduct which could lead to removal for cause.
This Is the Moment
Advocacy efforts by members of the Peace Corps community, including those led by National Peace Corps Association, have been instrumental in making this legislation possible. In the months following the global evacuation of Volunteers in 2020 because of COVID-19, NPCA convened a series of town halls and a global ideas summit to consider how to reimagine, reshape, and retool the Peace Corps for a changed world.
The resulting community-driven report, “Peace Corps Connect to the Future,” contains scores of recommendations for the agency and executive branch, Congress, and the wider Peace Corps community. Those recommendations range from recruitment and selection to effective programming and placement; from the health and safety of serving Volunteers to the benefits and support for returned Volunteers. The recommendations have shaped new agency initiatives and policies, and they have shaped the House and Senate legislation. In concrete terms, more than 20 recommendations contained in the report would be advanced — directly or indirectly — if a final, strong version of the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act is signed into law.
On student loans, a group of returned Volunteers has been instrumental in providing expertise and advice to legislators and their staff. And whistleblower and workers comp issues have long had leadership among RPCVs.
Now is the time for us as a community to make our voices heard. If we do, then we can be confident that just as the Peace Corps is returning to the field, so too will there be a renewed, revitalized, and reshaped Peace Corps for the next generation of Volunteers.
The past six months have seen the steady, growing, and responsible return of Volunteers to service in communities overseas. By October 2022, the agency projects Volunteers will be serving in 30 countries. By October 2023, Volunteers are expected to be back in most of the 60 pre-pandemic countries of service.
The very best way we can say “thank you for your service” to the newest generation of Peace Corps Volunteers is to come together and make sure the strongest possible Peace Corps Reauthorization Act is signed into law this year. And there is reason to be hopeful, as there’s strong bipartisan backing in both chambers of Congress.
However, with congressional elections looming, the window for final passage of the legislation is narrowing. Now is the time for us as a community to make our voices heard. If we do, then we can be confident that just as the Peace Corps is returning to the field, so too will there be a renewed, revitalized, and reshaped Peace Corps for the next generation of Volunteers.
This story appears in the Spring-Summer 2022 print edition of WorldView magazine.
Jonathan Pearson is director of advocacy for National Peace Corps Association.
The Peace Corps Reauthorization Act now moves forward. see more
The Peace Corps Reauthorization Act now moves forward. It would bring critical reforms to better protect Volunteers and put Peace Corps on the path toward a budget to bolster the number of Volunteers around the world. Though when it comes to health insurance and the Volunteer readjustment allowance, today’s changes provide a little less support.
By Jonathan Pearson
The Peace Corps Reauthorization Act (H.R. 1456), bipartisan legislation introduced by Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Representative John Garamendi (D-CA) and fellow Representative Garret Graves (R-LA), cleared its first significant hurdle on September 30th, when the House Foreign Affairs Committee moved the bill out of committee with a favorable vote.
The committee advanced the bill with a strong bipartisan showing in a vote of 44 to 4. Eighteen Republicans joined all committee Democrats in supporting the legislation, which will next go to the House Education and Labor Committee for review and then to the House floor for further consideration.
In bringing the legislation to the committee today, Garamendi noted that in communities across the globe, Volunteers have served in education, agriculture, and public health programs. “Peace Corps Volunteers are the face of America in these communities, building trust and goodwill,” he said. And the legislation would provide additional federal funding and resources “to advance the Peace Corps’ mission around the world and better support current, returning, and former Peace Corps Volunteers.”
Committee Approves Amended Version of Legislation
While the Garamendi-Graves legislation was approved, it came in the form of a substitute amendment presented by Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-NY), which contained significant additions and other substantive changes in the bill’s original language. ( Read the original legislation here. And see the full amendment here.)
“This bill helps realize President John F. Kennedy’s vision of Americans ready to serve their nation in new and innovative ways.”
— Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY)
In opening debate on the measure, Chairman Meeks said, “This bill helps realize President John F. Kennedy’s vision of Americans ready to serve their nation in new and innovative ways.” Meeks also spoke to the effort by the committee to engage various stakeholders in crafting the legislation, including National Peace Corps Association.
The lead Republican filling in for Ranking Member Michael McCaul (who represents Texas and was attending to a family health matter) was Ann Wagner (R-MO), who also expressed support for the legislation. “Many members of this committee represent Peace Corps Volunteers,” Wagner said. “We are grateful for their service and we honor the many sacrifices they make in leaving behind their friends and their families to make the world a better place.”
“H.R. 1456 makes long overdue changes and updates to one of America’s best diplomatic and humanitarian programs.”
— Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY)
Wagner was joined by fellow committee member Andy Barr (R-KY) in expressing support for the bill. “H.R. 1456 makes long overdue changes and updates to one of America’s best diplomatic and humanitarian programs,” Barr said. Barr also praised the robust work of the leaders of the Kentucky Peace Corps Association, an NPCA affiliate group of returned Volunteers. Barr singled out the impact of Jack and Angene Wilson, who both served in Liberia in the 1960s, and Will and Amy Glasscock, who both served in Indonesia within the past decade. “I am personally very much indebted to the Glasscocks and the Wilsons in particular for their engagement with my office and their advocacy for the Peace Corps,” Barr said. “They are really terrific ambassadors for our United States as they promote the Peace Corps and its mission.”
In a press release issued October 4, Rep. Garamendi thanked Chairman Meeks and members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee for passing this critically important legislation with strong bipartisan support — and he noted the powerful impact that serving as a Volunteer in Ethiopia had for him and his wife, Patti Garamendi, who also served in the Peace Corps.
“Congress has not reauthorized the Peace Corps in over 20 years. It is vital for the ‘Peace Corps Reauthorization Act’ to become law so the Peace Corps can redeploy Volunteers worldwide once safe and prudent to do so and realize President Kennedy’s vision of generations of young Americans ready to serve their nation and make the world a better place.”
—Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA)
“Congress has not reauthorized the Peace Corps in over 20 years,” Garamendi noted. “It is vital for the ‘Peace Corps Reauthorization Act’ to become law so the Peace Corps can redeploy Volunteers worldwide once safe and prudent to do so and realize President Kennedy’s vision of generations of young Americans ready to serve their nation and make the world a better place … I will continue to work tirelessly until the ‘Peace Corps Reauthorization Act’ is on President Biden’s desk to be signed into law.”
Sexual assault is a central concern — as it needs to be.
Along with high praise and the importance of the Peace Corps, today’s debate also brought renewed focus to the deep concerns about Volunteers who have been victims of sexual assault.
While lawmakers noted important reforms are included in the legislation, committee members cited recent journalistic investigations and Peace Corps Inspector General reports as far back as 2013 indicating that sexual assault in the agency remains as a serious problem — and that more needs to be done.
Citing the April 22, 2021 in-depth investigative story in USA Today on sexual assault within the Peace Corps, Rep. Wagner said, “Tragically, one out of every three Volunteers who finished service in 2019 reported experiencing a sexual assault; Volunteers have also reported a hesitancy to describe these cases to the Peace Corps due to fear of retaliation or criticism. This is devastating.”
“Tragically, one out of every three Volunteers who finished service in 2019 reported experiencing a sexual assault; Volunteers have also reported a hesitancy to describe these cases to the Peace Corps due to fear of retaliation or criticism. This is devastating.”
— Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO)
An amendment introduced by Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) proposed withholding agency funding outlined in the legislation until the Peace Corps satisfied all recommendations made by the agency Inspector General to further address sexual assault mitigation strategies. Noting that no Volunteers are currently serving overseas, Perry said, “If we are going to do it, now is the time.”
The Perry amendment was defeated by a vote of 26 to 21 along party lines. In opposing the amendment, Chairman Meeks noted the amendment was issued 10 minutes before the start of the committee meeting. He said staff reached out to the Office of the Inspector General for Peace Corps, which said in part that interruptions in funding could interfere with the agency’s ability to satisfy all IG recommendations. Meeks also cited reforms in the amended bill — such as language to protect Volunteers from reprisals or retaliation, and the extension of the Sexual Assault Advisory Council to continue its work through 2025 — as examples of reforms that further address Volunteer safety and security.
The committee’s very necessary focus on addressing sexual assault in the Peace Corps comes just days after National Peace Corps Association hosted a global conference for the Peace Corps community that included a panel tackling safety and security for Volunteers 10 years after the passage of the Kate Puzey Volunteer Protection Act. A key takeaway in that panel discussion, too: Peace Corps needs to do better — but there is never a time when the agency can check off a box and say the work is done.
A better and stronger Peace Corps
Following Thursday’s committee action, National Peace Corps Association released this statement from President and CEO Glenn Blumhorst:
“This is a very good day for the Peace Corps and its future. While we are continuing to review and consider some of the alterations made to the original version of the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act, all of the foundational elements of this landmark legislation remain. We want to thank Chairman Meeks, Ranking Member McCaul, Representative Wagner, committee staff, and all members of the committee who voted in favor of H.R. 1456 and took this first, critical step toward passing this legislation. From protecting whistleblowers to providing Peace Corps the robust funding it needs to help our country re-engage with the world, these are important reforms.
“To our community and other friends of the Peace Corps, make no mistake. Today’s action was a significant step, but it is only one step in a lengthy process to pass this legislation in both chambers of Congress and send the bill to the president for his signature. Every individual who believes in a stronger and better and well-resourced Peace Corps needs to help us pass H.R. 1456.”
—Glenn Blumhorst, NPCA President & CEO
“We are most grateful to our RPCV friend, Representative John Garamendi, his bipartisan counterpart Garret Graves, and their hardworking staff for their months-long dedication and determination in which they consulted, collaborated, and created this comprehensive Peace Corps legislation. Representative Garamendi has often noted that he wants his legislation to be about and for the Peace Corps Volunteer. In so many important ways related to health and safety, Volunteer and RPCV support, strengthened reporting guidelines and professional resources, and respecting and honoring Peace Corps service, this legislation advances those causes. It supports those Volunteers forced home prematurely by the pandemic who want to return to their service as soon as possible, and also supports the next wave of Peace Corps Volunteer recruits who anxiously await word on their opportunity to serve our nation.
“To our community and other friends of the Peace Corps, make no mistake. Today’s action was a significant step, but it is only one step in a lengthy process to pass this legislation in both chambers of Congress and send the bill to the president for his signature. Every individual who believes in a stronger and better and well-resourced Peace Corps needs to help us pass H.R. 1456.”
What has changed in the bill?
The Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2021 was originally introduced in March. Today, items from the original bill that were altered include the following:
Recommended Peace Corps Appropriations: While the amendment retains language supporting regular, annual calls for increased funding for the Peace Corps reaching $550 million through Fiscal Year 2024, the new language drops the recommended target of $600 million in funding by Fiscal Year 2025.
Volunteer Readjustment Allowance: The amendment would set the current Volunteer readjustment allowance ($375/month) as the statutory minimum allowance for Volunteers going forward. It removes the proposal to mandate raising that minimum to $417, retaining the agency’s authority to determine when the allowance should be increased.
Post-Service Health Coverage for Returned Volunteers: The traditional period in which the Peace Corps pays for post-service health insurance for returning Volunteers would be increased from 30 days to 60 days under the amendment. That’s one month less than the 90 days proposed in the original Garamendi-Graves bill.
Protection of Peace Corps Volunteers Against Reprisals or Retaliation: Language in the Garamendi-Graves legislation pertaining to whistleblower protection has been amended so that it now outlines recommended procedures and policies to protect Volunteers from acts of reprisal or retaliation.
What has not changed in the bill?
Items from the original bill that were unchanged include the following:
Workers Compensation Increase: The Meeks amendment retains language calling for an increase in the rate of compensation for RPCVs who come home and are unable to work due to service related illness or injury. This provision is a primary reason why the legislation will next be considered by the House Education and Labor Committee.
GAO Reporting on Mental Health: The amendment retains language requesting a report by the Government Accountability Office on the status and possible improvements related to mental health services provided to RPCVs upon coming home from service. Better mental health support is one of the community-driven recommendations NPCA provides in the report “Peace Corps Connect to the Future.”
Menstrual Equity Act: The amendment continues to include text of H.R. 1467, the Menstrual Equity in the Peace Corps Act, legislation introduced by Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY). This legislation requires the Peace Corps to ensure access to menstrual products for Volunteers who require them, either by increasing stipends or providing the products for affected Volunteers.
Anti-Malarial Drugs: The amendment retains language stating that the Peace Corps shall consult with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on recommendations in prescribing malaria prophylaxis, and that the agency shall address training of medical personnel in malaria countries on side effects of such medications.
Respect for Peace Corps Volunteers Act: The amendment continues to include text of H.R. 4188, the Respect for Peace Corps Volunteers Act, legislation introduced by Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ) and Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA). This would confirm that an allowable use of the Peace Corps name, official seal, and emblem would include its use at gravesites or in death notices.
What’s been added to the bill?
Items that were added to the original bill include the following:
Increased Duration for Non-Competitive Eligibility (NCE): The amendment retains language in the Garamendi-Graves bill that would protect the full NCE benefit for new Volunteers should they be unable to work due to illness or injury upon returning home, or if there is a federal government shutdown or hiring freeze. The amendment would also extend the general length of NCE from one year to two years.
Extension of Sexual Assault Advisory Council: The Kate Puzey Volunteer Protection Act of 2011 created the Peace Corps’ Sexual Assault Advisory Council. In 2018, the Sam Farr and Nick Castle Peace Corps Reform Act extended the work of of the council through 2023. The Meeks amendment would extend the work of the council through 2025.
Peace Corps Service Deployments in the U.S.: Given the emergency deployment of Peace Corps Volunteers in response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the service by Volunteers to assist the Federal Emergency Management Agency with COVID relief in 2021, the Meeks amendment would codify into law the allowance of future Volunteer deployment in the U.S. at the request of another federal agency.
Expanded Language on Virtual Service Opportunities: The amendment expands language regarding virtual volunteer opportunities and incorporates it into the Peace Corps Act. It notes that this expands opportunities to recruit individuals who face barriers to serving physically in a country outside the U.S.
Additional Reporting Requirements: Along with the reporting requirements already outlined in the Garamendi-Graves legislation, the amendment includes additional reporting requirements on Peace Corps guidelines and standards used to evaluate the mental health of Peace Corps applicants prior to service. It calls for more detailed information on the number of evacuations due to medical or mental health circumstances, and associated costs.
READ MORE: Text of the full amended version of H.R. 1456 approved by the Foreign Affairs Committee on September 30, 2021.
YOU MIGHT ALSO BE INTERESTED IN: Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings and NPCA President and CEO Glenn Blumhorst: “After the fall of Afghanistan, we need the rise the Peace Corps.” Guest essay in The Hill on September 30, 2021.
Story published Sept. 30, 2021. Updated October 6, 2021 to include press release by John Garamendi.
Jonathan Pearson is the Director of Advocacy for National Peace Corps Association. If you’d like to get involved in advocating for H.R. 1456, email him: firstname.lastname@example.org
The House has just passed the most sweeping Peace Corps legislation in a generation see more
The House of Representatives has just passed the most sweeping Peace Corps legislation in a generation.
Washington, D.C. — National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) strongly applauds the U.S. House of Representatives for passing the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act (H.R. 1456). This bill is crucial for the future of the Peace Corps as a new generation of Volunteers returns to service. If it ultimately becomes law, it will be the first full reauthorization of the Peace Corps since 1999. More than 240,000 Americans have served in the Peace Corps since 1961.
The bill’s lead author is Representative John Garamendi (D-CA), the sole Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) in Congress; his co-author is Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA), a longtime Peace Corps champion. Their bipartisan leadership in support of the Peace Corps is a powerful testament to the enduring backing of the American people for volunteer service abroad. The strong bipartisan vote today only affirms this backing.
NPCA Board of Directors Chair John Lee Evans said upon the passage of the legislation: “This legislation does what many in the Peace Corps community have been demanding for years. It authorizes critical agency funding; increases readjustment allowance for RPCVs; extends transitory health care coverage for RPCVs; provides greater whistleblower protections for RPCVs; increases Non-Competitive Eligibility (NCE) for RPCVs; strengthens DEIA efforts at the Peace Corps; expands Peace Corps eligibility to include U.S. citizens who are American Samoan; provides a modest increase for Peace Corps Volunteers’ level of workers compensation; strengthens and extends the work of the Peace Corps’ Sexual Assault Advisory Council; and authorizes Virtual Service. These are the kinds of visionary reforms that will ensure a strong Peace Corps, one that advances American goals abroad and strengthens our peoples’ connections to the world.”
“These are the kinds of visionary reforms that will ensure a strong Peace Corps, one that advances American goals abroad and strengthens our peoples’ connections to the world.”
— John Lee Evans, NPCA Board Chair
NPCA Interim President Dan Baker also said: “Today the RPCV community stands united in gratitude for the leadership shown by the Congress in getting this bill one step closer to the President’s desk. Our longtime House champions Rep. John Garamendi and Garret Graves deserve deep applause for their vision in moving this bill forward. I’d also like to thank the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Rep. Mike McCaul (R-TX) for their unwavering support, as well as Vice Chairs Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) and Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO) for their strong commitment to a reformed and revitalized Peace Corps. This bill, which has companion legislation in the Senate moving forward, will strengthen Americans’ ability to serve around the world and the impact of Peace Corps’ efforts overall.”
About National Peace Corps Association
National Peace Corps Association is the nation’s largest organization dedicated to promoting and advancing the goals of the Peace Corps. NPCA is a mission-driven social impact organization that encourages and celebrates lifelong commitment to Peace Corps ideals. NPCA supports a united and vibrant Peace Corps community—including current and returned Peace Corps Volunteers, current and former staff, host country nationals, family, and friends—in our efforts to create a better world.
For more information, contact:
Steven Boyd Saum, Director of Strategic Communications
Joel Rubin, Vice President for Global Policy and Public Affairs
Orrin Luc posted an articleProgress, failures, and what’s on the horizon: a conversation convened for Peace Corps Connect 2021 see more
Progress, failures, and what’s on the horizon: a conversation convened for Peace Corps Connect 2021
Illustration by Anna + Elena = Balbusso
On September 26, 2011, as the Peace Corps community marked 50 years of Volunteers serving in communities around the world, the U.S. Senate passed the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, which was signed into law later that year. Three years ago, Congress completed work on the Sam Farr and Nick Castle Peace Corps Reform Act. These two pieces of legislation were designed to bring about improvements and reforms pertaining to the health, safety, and security of Volunteers. What made them necessary were two tragedies: Volunteer Kate Puzey was murdered after she reported a Peace Corps employee for sexually abusing children; Volunteer Nick Castle died when he did not receive appropriate medical care in time.
National Peace Corps Association brought together this panel on September 25, 2021, to discuss progress, shortcomings, and future steps needed to further support and protect Volunteers as Peace Corps prepares for global redeployment. Below are edited excerpts.
Watch the entire discussion here: Peace Corps Safety and Security: A Decade of Legislation for Change
Susan Smith Howley, J.D.
Project Director, Center for Victim Research at Justice Research and Statistics Association
Mother of fallen Volunteer Nick Castle
Casey Frazee Katz
Volunteer in South Africa 2009
Founder of First Response Action
Moderated by Maricarmen Smith-Martinez
Volunteer in Costa Rica 2006–08
Chair of the NPCA Board 2018–21
Maricarmen Smith-Martinez: Issues relating to sexual assault and violence against women, and to inadequate healthcare, span the globe. Peace Corps is not immune to these challenges. We want to review the passage of laws aimed at improving and addressing challenges in Volunteer safety and health; consider how successful those laws have been in bringing about progress and change; explore where those efforts have fallen short; and consider steps to take moving forward — and identify opportunities in this unique moment.
My first foray into advocacy for Volunteer health and safety began as a member of Atlanta Area Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, after hearing Kate Puzey’s mother speak at Peace Corps 50th anniversary events in 2011. One activist who led the charge in securing the passage of the Kate Puzey Act is Casey Frazee Katz; she created First Response Action and built a grassroots movement to push this legislation forward. What did you hope to achieve?
Casey Frazee Katz: During my service as a Volunteer in South Africa, I was sexually assaulted. I found quickly that there were other Volunteers in South Africa and across the African continent and the globe who had also been sexually assaulted or harassed. What I couldn’t find were rules, laws, information, resources for someone who had been sexually assaulted as a Volunteer. So I founded First Response Action to work toward getting protections, support resources, and information codified for Volunteers.
We initially started working with Peace Corps administration. Quickly it became obvious that we needed to take a step up. We began working with legislators and pulled in other returned Volunteers and families, including Kate Puzey’s family. We drafted the initial legislation, which went through many rounds before that was signed in 2011 to codify some supports for Volunteers—and to establish victim advocacy. I’m grateful that 10 years later, victim advocacy exists within the Peace Corps. This is an issue that is ongoing. So I’m grateful NPCA is keeping this issue top of mind.
Maricarmen Smith-Martinez: One outcome of that legislation was creation of the Sexual Assault Advisory Council.
Susan Howley: I was a victim advocate at the national policy level for more than 25 years, working with people around the country as they passed their first victims rights laws: the first Violence Against Women Act, then the second, then the third. Now there’s a fourth. I worked with people who helped name and develop a response to stalking and human trafficking; worked to address the DNA backlog; worked with those raising awareness and calling for change in the military, on college campuses, in churches, in youth organizations, about sexual assault. I now work in the Center for Victim Research, trying to build an evidence base for how we can better support victims and survivors. In 2012, I was part of the first Sexual Assault Advisory Council and served during its first four years.
By the time that council first met, the Peace Corps had already taken steps to stand up an office for victim advocacy; they developed and piloted their first training; there was already a risk reduction in response programming beginning to be put in place; and there were plans to research and monitor impacts. We were asked to advise on certain things; one was creation of a restricted reporting process, where Volunteers could report confidentially and access services and supports.
What struck me were the complexities involved. There’s no uniform justice system around the world. Peace Corps has no criminal jurisdiction over foreign actors. The recognition of sexual assault was far from universal.
What struck me were the complexities involved. There’s no uniform justice system around the world. Peace Corps has no criminal jurisdiction over foreign actors. The recognition of sexual assault was far from universal, especially for crimes that don’t involve penetration; certainly no uniform understanding of what sexual harassment is, or that it’s wrong. Mental health response wasn’t consistently available in countries. Unlike the military, there was no universal authority over anyone who might be involved in an assault — or response. Even where one Volunteer assaulted another, the Peace Corps didn’t have the same ability to hold someone accountable that you might have in the military. Unlike on a college campus, there are only one or two opportunities to reach the bulk of Volunteers for training. Peace Corps wanted to do a survey of RPCVs to find out more about the extent of sexual assault and harassment; that was a heavy lift, because RPCVs are no longer affiliated with the Peace Corps. You had to go through a whole process with the Office of Management and Budget before you could even think about having a survey.
How do you train in-country staff? How often do they get together? Now we’re used to doing trainings by Zoom. It was a different world 10 years ago. There were a lot of issues that came up when Peace Corps was developing things like restrictive reporting; the Inspector General didn’t understand why they didn’t automatically get all reports — even confidential. It took time for country directors to understand they could not automatically get all information about confidential or restricted reports.
With the Sexual Assault Advisory Council, each year we would come together and get a briefing on new adjustments, progress, evolutions in trainings or policies. We would hear what happened to the previous year’s recommendations: Which ones had the Peace Corps agreed with and were adopting? Which ones did the Peace Corps partially agree with? Which ones did they disagree with — and why? Then we would meet to review everything new and make recommendations.
We would help identify best practices and adapt them. But the term “best practices” is really “best that we know right now.” Often you’re pointing to a program that worked for that group in that context. Does it work here with these people? Where there were no best practices, the Peace Corps and the Sexual Assault Advisory Council relied on key principles of trying to be as transparent as possible and trying to give victims options wherever possible. You create the best trainings and policies that you can at the moment; you implement them and monitor them. Then see where things aren’t working and adjust.
I can’t think of a single area of crime victim response where advocates have been able to say, “Now we’re done. We have a system where every crime victim gets a just and compassionate response.” The most we can say in any arena is: “This is an improvement. What’s next?”
I mentioned Zoom. There are new opportunities for virtual response and training. There’s new understanding of what it means to be trauma-informed, victim-centered. You can’t have a system of continual improvement without hearing from those for whom the system is not working. There have to be systems to identify and learn from cases where risk reduction failed, or response was harmful. We have to support victims who come forward after being failed, recognize their courage, and advocate for them.
Improvements in our system of response to victims and survivors of crime in all kinds of settings, including the Peace Corps, have largely occurred because someone who was harmed or was close to someone who was harmed said, “This has to change.” Even where we make major improvements, the struggle for all of us is to recognize that “this has to change” is a repeated theme. There’s always more to do to ensure a victim-centered response and working support system. I can’t think of a single area of crime victim response where advocates have been able to say, “Now we’re done. We have a system where every crime victim gets a just and compassionate response.” The most we can say in any arena is: “This is an improvement. What’s next?”
Illustration by Anna + Elena = Balbusso
Maricarmen Smith-Martinez: In addition to safety, we want to discuss healthcare for Volunteers. I first met Sue Castle several years ago through NPCA advocacy efforts; she and her husband, Dave, were working closely with members of Congress to draft and advance legislation that is now named after their son. They have been fully engaged with NPCA efforts to support it. I’ve seen firsthand the powerful impact of their story when shared with members of Congress. I’ve also seen how difficult it can be to repeat this story over and over again.
Sue Castle: I must thank everyone who has dedicated their time and effort in supporting reform efforts. Yet it’s pretty disheartening, because it is 10 years after the Kate Puzey Protection Act was signed into law, and we’re still trying to see it followed.
A month after graduating from U.C. Berkeley, in 2012, my son Nick was sent to China as a Peace Corps Volunteer. He became quite ill while serving, and he died in February 2013. Medical care he received by a Peace Corps medical officer (PCMO) was poor and contributed to his death. My primary goal in being involved in advocacy was to make sure what happened to Nick could never happen to another Volunteer. Sadly, that did not happen.
No one wants to have to share some of the worst moments of their life.
In 2018, another Volunteer, Bernice Heiderman, died due to poor medical care. Policies were not being followed. It’s heartbreaking to see this. Peace Corps is supposed to be about what is best about American service: to learn about the cultures, values, and traditions of other countries. But the Peace Corps fails when it comes to taking care of Volunteers who have had a difficult service. Volunteers who return home ill or disabled have difficulty receiving healthcare. Volunteers who are a victim of a crime or sexual assault have difficulty seeing any resolution to their case, and in receiving proper mental health services to move forward in processing their trauma. Many times these Volunteers take their case public, hoping to get help. No one wants to have to share some of the worst moments of their life.
In 2018, the Sam Farr and Nick Castle Peace Corps Reform Act was signed into law. It extends some provisions in the Kate Puzey Act. Yet some of these provisions remain vague. I’ve talked to members in Congress about that. Some issues remain confidential and are unable to be discussed — such as performance reviews of PCMOs. I want to see better healthcare in training before any growth or expansion of the Peace Corps. I want to see professional PCMOs; less encouragement to tough it out or be ignored; and a more thorough examination of the patient. I want to see medical training that reflects current standards, and reviews that accurately reflect the competency of the PCMO.
Cultural bias can be difficult to overcome. There needs to be more training in regard to that. Voices with more recent experience in regard to safety and sexual assault need to be acknowledged and not dismissed. The approach that the Peace Corps has taken has not translated into long-standing change. New ways of dealing with these issues need to be explored. The cost of advocacy is high when you have to retell your story over and over again. Peace Corps shouldn’t have to wait for a response because of a story in The Daily Beast or The New York Times or USA Today. They need to do better.
Where’s the data?
Casey Frazee Katz: When I started talking to people in my group about being assaulted, some shared that they knew of other people who had come through South Africa who had also been assaulted, or had been in other countries and medevaced to South Africa. But we didn’t have data. So I created a basic survey where I asked Volunteers to share as widely as they could, to get better data: Who had been assaulted? Which countries had hot spots or particular issues? What was the response? Do they feel supported or not? The vast majority — three-quarters of people — felt they were not supported. We were hopeful to go in the direction of the quarter of people who did feel supported: What happened there, and how are they connected? How are they resourced? Then we know what to do next.
Maricarmen Smith-Martinez: Do you think that the efforts the council is taking are setting the stage for an evidence-based approach?
We were hopeful to go in the direction of the quarter of people who did feel supported: What happened there, and how are they connected? How are they resourced? Then we know what to do next.
Susan Howley: There’s always more to be done. There’s now a fully functioning RPCV survey, which will be very helpful. There’s about to be a new database that will make it easier to keep victims’ information confidential but allow pulling out more data about what happened, the kinds of responses people are getting. You still need a system that makes it comfortable for people who feel that they were failed to come forward and report — whether that’s anonymously or identifying themselves.
Just like there’s no best practice in response, there’s also no best practice in gathering this kind of data. We’ve tried national victimization surveys, local victimization surveys, college victimization surveys. There’s always a better way to improve response rates, accuracy, and understanding. The Peace Corps is about to undertake a more formal evaluation of its programs. That’s important, because one step is to try to articulate: What are the outcomes we are looking for? What are the indicators we’ll be able to gather that will show whether we are getting those outcomes? The outcomes are typically: We want people who have been victimized to thrive in the future. What is it that they might tell us is happening in the short term that is an indicator they’ll thrive in the future? You have to keep working at it and refining it.
Maricarmen Smith-Martinez: If things are not documented appropriately, we are liable to repeat mistakes.
Sue Castle: What they need to do is hold people accountable for when they aren’t documenting. It tends to come out later that they did not document a safety and security or healthcare incident. There’s no accountability for not documenting. We’re going to have a new security management system. Training is critical. But I think there’s a cultural bias to dismissing some health or security concerns; that’s why they’re not documented. They need to document everything and make it clear: You’re not going to be punished for documenting, but you are going to be held accountable if you’re not documenting.
Is this a matter of needing more legislation — for example, for the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act? Or is it a matter of better implementing legislation we have passed — the Kate Puzey Act, the Farr-Castle Act? What types of measures would help support improved implementation?
The Peace Corps Reauthorization Act is a great piece of legislation. It covers a lot: increase in the workers’ compensation rate from GS 7 to 11 for RPCVs who come home and are unable to work because of a service-related illness or injury; it extends whistleblower protection; it includes the Respect for Peace Corps Act. As far as prior legislation: That shouldn’t take this long to implement.
Maricarmen Smith-Martinez: The Peace Corps Reauthorization Act would also increase the period in which Peace Corps would pay for post-service insurance from one month to three months. We saw that post-evacuation — so trying to make that permanent. The legislation proposes further reporting on post-service mental healthcare provided to returned Volunteers. What might the gradual reintroduction of Volunteers into the field mean when it comes to improving the safety and security and piloting measures?
Sue Castle: They’re already working on improving behavioral health resources for Volunteers — a good first step.
Casey Frazee Katz: What comes to my mind, especially thinking of the council working on risk reduction, is evaluating sites. I wouldn’t say that Peace Corps is inherently unsafe for anyone. Sexual assault, sadly, and sexual harassment, are issues that tend to have several commonalities. One is sometimes just opportunity. If Volunteers are in a rural area with limited cellphone reception, no independent way to get out of their site, that makes someone a little bit of a sitting duck to someone who knows that. As no Volunteers are in the field now, that gives a unique opportunity to evaluate how safe a site is, how many risk factors exist, what resources someone has access to — safety or support.
There ought to be a law. Implemented.
Casey Frazee Katz: Ten years ago, it surprised me that people we thought would be natural allies in Congress were not necessarily immediate supporters of our efforts. People were afraid that maybe we wanted, in bringing up this issue, to dismantle the Peace Corps. None of us wanted that. We believe in Peace Corps as an institution. We believe that Peace Corps does good work. We just wanted to make sure that Peace Corps was also accountable and supportive. These are reasonable measures. What Sue is talking about in terms of PCMO training is very reasonable. However, there is a pandemic and the current political climate, which can make things more challenging. In the best-case scenario, Peace Corps can be a model for supporting survivors, infrastructure, sustainability, and economy. Legislation is one part; implementation, follow-through, training, and assessment matter, too.
We just wanted to make sure that Peace Corps was also accountable and supportive. These are reasonable measures.
Sue Castle: My point has always been to make the Peace Corps better for Volunteers. I’ve done recruiting events and shared my story. I want people to be aware, but I also want people to be involved. Everybody’s voice needs to be acknowledged, whether you agree with it or not. They’re painful conversations — but necessary, and it’s only going to make the Peace Corps better.
Casey Frazee Katz: Pushing the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act forward is certainly critical. With the advocacy work we did 10 years ago, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that, in addition to the Volunteers and returned Volunteers, we were supported by a legal team who helped us prepare for the hearing and get affidavits from survivors. These are complex issues and sometimes require complex solutions.
Susan Howley: The voice of the individual is key in advocacy efforts. Legislators and policymakers tell you that they want data, facts; they want to see the logic. But it’s the real story that brings it home, that really makes that data and research come alive for a legislator and their staff — and makes them care.
WATCH THE ENTIRE DISCUSSION here: Peace Corps Safety and Security: A Decade of Legislation for Change
This story appears in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Story updated January 17, 2022.
Orrin Luc posted an articleHouse Foreign Affairs Committee passes the bill with ringing bipartisan approval: a vote of 44 to 4 see more
In a time of partisan rancor, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passes the bill with ringing bipartisan approval: a vote of 44 to 4.
By Jonathan Pearson
It is a sweeping piece of Peace Corps legislation, addressing everything from Volunteer health, safety, and security, to enhanced support and recognition, to expanded opportunities through Peace Corps service, to prioritizing recent evacuees who wish to resume their service as Peace Corps begins redeployment. And over the next year, it is also a top priority on National Peace Corps Association’s advocacy agenda.
The Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2021 (H.R. 1456), bipartisan legislation introduced by Congressmen John Garamendi (D-CA) and Garret Graves (R-LA), cleared its first legislative hurdle in late September when the House Foreign Affairs Committee overwhelmingly approved the legislation by a vote of 44 to 4. The legislation awaits consideration before a second committee before possible consideration by the full House of Representatives. Meanwhile, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), is working to introduce companion legislation.
“This bill helps realize President John F. Kennedy’s vision of Americans ready to serve their nation in new and innovative ways.”
—Rep. Gregory Meeks
“Congress has not reauthorized the Peace Corps in over 20 years,” said Representative Garamendi in a press statement following the vote in the Foreign Affairs Committee. “It is vital for the ‘Peace Corps Reauthorization Act’ to become law so the Peace Corps can redeploy Volunteers worldwide once safe and prudent to do so and realize President Kennedy’s vision of generations of young Americans ready to serve their nation and make the world a better place.”
The House Foreign Affairs Committee passed the legislation in the form of an amendment put forth by Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-NY), who praised Representative Garamendi for the bill, saying, “This bill helps realize President John F. Kennedy’s vision of Americans ready to serve their nation in new and innovative ways.”
Read the original legislation here.
House Foreign Affairs: Chair Gregory Meeks (D-NY), speaking, and ranking member Michael McCaul (R-TX). Photo by J. Scott Applewhite / AP
What’s in the Legislation?
The 41-page bill includes provisions to address both long-standing proposals and new ideas as the agency prepares for global redeployment.
Among proposals for health, safety, and security:
Extend work of the previously mandated Sexual Assault Advisory Council through 2025; right now that council’s authorization will sunset in 2023.
Promote consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and improve staff training on anti-malarial drugs.
Require reporting on the status of mental healthcare services as well as possible improvements to them.
Implement procedures and policies to protect Volunteers from acts of reprisal or retaliation when they report concerns or problems.
Past proposals that are also included in this legislation:
Returned Peace Corps Volunteers coming home with service-related injuries or illness may be eligible for workers’ compensation. However, the compensation rate is exceedingly low, leaving some destitute and desperate. In 2014, RPCV Nancy Tongue, founder of the group Health Justice for Peace Corps Volunteers, met with then Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet and Deputy Labor Secretary Christopher Lu, resulting in a proposal to provide some relief through an increase in the workers’ compensation rate. While introduced in previous legislation, this provision was stripped out in the past and has not been approved by Congress. H.R. 1456 once again includes this proposed compensation increase.
Every year since 2013, Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ) has introduced the Respect for Peace Corps Volunteers Act. This one-paragraph legislation would simply amend the Peace Corps Act to honor Volunteers by allowing the Peace Corps emblem to be used at gravesites and in death notices. The text of the Respect Act is included in H.R. 1456.
For many years, RPCVs have sought an enhancement of Non-Competitive Eligibility (NCE) opportunities for federal hiring, beyond the standard one year provided many years ago through an executive order. H.R. 1456 would codify the executive order and extend NCE status for qualified RPCVs from one to two years.
Other initiatives included:
Given the emergency deployment of Peace Corps Volunteers in response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the service by Volunteers to assist the Federal Emergency Management Agency with COVID-19 relief in 2021, H.R. 1456 would codify into law the allowance of future Volunteer deployment in the U.S. at the request of another federal agency.
H.R. 1456 expands language regarding virtual volunteer opportunities and incorporates it into the Peace Corps Act. It notes that this provision will increase opportunities to recruit individuals who face barriers to physically serving in a country outside the U.S.
Time to Mobilize
NPCA President Glenn Blumhorst issued a call to action following the vote by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “To our community and other friends of the Peace Corps, make no mistake. (This) action was a significant step, but it is only one step in a lengthy process to pass this legislation in both chambers of Congress and send the bill to the president for his signature. Every individual who believes in a stronger and better and well-resourced Peace Corps needs to help us pass H.R. 1456.”
This story appears in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Jonathan Pearson is Director of Advocacy for National Peace Corps Association.
A follow-up story in USA Today and Public Commentary on the Peace Corps SARRR Plan see more
USA Today publishes a follow-up to an in-depth investigation published earlier this spring. And the public has an opportunity to comment on the Peace Corps agency’s Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Response program.
By Steven Boyd Saum
On December 12, 2021, USA Today published an important follow-up to an April 2021 story by journalists Donovan Slack and Tricia L. Nodolny on sexual assault in the Peace Corps. The original story, based on two years of investigation, led Acting Director of the Peace Corps Carol Spahn to call for a five-year review by the Peace Corps Sexual Assault Advisory Council of what recommendations had been made — and to provide recommendations going forward.
The report from the council made it clear that big changes are needed, including the creation of new tools, systems, and hiring of personnel. The report also emphasized a focus on transparent communication. The follow-up story in USA Today underscores those points as well, and it makes clear that a number of women who have been victims of sexual assault while serving as Volunteers want to see more meaningful action from the agency.
This is a difficult and heartbreaking matter to address — but we all have the responsibility to listen, and to ensure that we’re making Peace Corps the best that it can be for Volunteers and communities. And, as Glenn Blumhorst, president and CEO of National Peace Corps Association, notes in the USA Today story published in December, we need to hold Peace Corps accountable.
Read the story from USA Today here. For those who don’t have a subscription, it is also available on Apple News and Yahoo News.
Find a link to the original investigative story here, in “Peace Corps Must Do Better in Addressing Sexual Assault,” written by Maricarmen Smith-Martinez, then chair of the NPCA board, and published on the NPCA site in April 2021, responding to the USA Today investigation. “We owe it to these women to read their stories — and to truly hear what they are saying,” Smith-Martinez wrote. “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.”
The Report from the Sexual Assault Advisory Council
In November 2021, the Peace Corps made public the new report from the Sexual Assault Advisory Council. National Peace Corps Association put together a summary and analysis of the report. The report includes 26 recommendations for tools, systems, personnel, and a larger cultural shift.
NPCA is pushing for legislation, accountability, and funding that will help ensure those are followed through. The Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2021 ensures protection against Volunteers who report wrongdoing. And it extends the authorization of the Sexual Assault Advisory Council through 2025. Unless that legislation passes, the council’s mandate expires in 2023. Volunteer safety needs to be a top priority.
Read the analysis and summary of the report here.
Public Comment on Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Response Program
Through December 16, 2021, the Peace Corps is seeking public comment as it develops a road map for the agency’s Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Response (SARRR) program. Read more and send your comments here.
Peace Corps Safety and Security — A Broader View
As part of Peace Corps Connect 2021, the 60th anniversary conference for the global Peace Corps community, NPCA brought together a panel to tackle “Peace Corps Safety and Security: A Decade of Legislation for Change.”
That panel includes Susan Smith Howley, J.D. – Project Director, Center for Victim Research at Justice Research and Statistics Association, and one of the first members of the Sexual Assault Advisory Council; Sue Castle – Mother of fallen Volunteer Nick Castle; and Casey Frazee Katz – Founder of First Response Action, who a decade ago began advocating for changing how Peace Corps handles sexual assault. They are in conversation with former NPCA Board Chair Maricarmen Smith-Martinez.
The new edition of WorldView magazine, out later this month, includes that conversation as well.
Story updated December 28, 2021 at 2:30 PM Eastern.
Steven Boyd Saum is the editor of WorldView magazine and director of strategic communications for National Peace Corps Association.
Peace Corps Releases Sexual Assault Advisory Council Report — Sweeping in Scope, with 26 Specific Recommendations26 specific recommendations to create tools, systems, processes, and positions see more
The council reviewed recommendations from the past five years. And they have staked out the need to create tools, systems, processes, and positions. It’s an outline for work ahead and lays out timetables for actions that need to be taken.
By Rachel Edwards and Jonathan Pearson
On November 10 the Peace Corps agency released a report prepared by the Peace Corps’ Sexual Assault Advisory Council. Half a year in the making, the report tackles an issue that made headlines this past spring and caught the attention of members of Congress.
The report was requested by Peace Corps Acting Director Carol Spahn and presented to the agency in mid-October. It offers a sweeping review of recommendations made by the council and actions undertaken by the Peace Corps over the past five years. And it stakes out a need to create tools, systems, processes, and positions within the agency.
The catalyst for the report, as the council noted in presenting it, was an in-depth investigative story published by USA Today in April 2021, “Sexual Assault in Peace Corps: Volunteers Betrayed by Agency Failures,” which chronicled how the agency failed to address sexual violence against Peace Corps Volunteers serving around the world.
The 11-member council also noted that the agency had not waited for receipt of the report before taking action on problems raised in the investigative article. In presenting the report, the council wrote that it “commends Peace Corps’ work across these key areas in the six months since the publication of the USA Today article, and is hopeful that this work will continue, to create a supportive, safe, transparent environment that meets Volunteers’ needs and expectations as Peace Corps country programs re-open.”
This is “a time when we are called to help tackle an issue that is all too pervasive — both here in the United States and around the world.”
—Carol Spahn, Acting Director of the Peace Corps
In a press release accompanying the public release of the report, Acting Director Spahn said, “The Peace Corps is committed to being part of the solution and we stand ready to make the necessary changes and investments to improve our systems, ensure our structures support long-term progress, and maintain transparency in the process.” Spahn also noted that this is “a time when we are called to help tackle an issue that is all too pervasive — both here in the United States and around the world.”
The release enumerated a raft of actions undertaken by the Peace Corps in recent months to address sexual assault. Read more on those below. First, here’s what’s in the report.
Four Guiding Principles — and 26 Recommendations
The comprehensive report notes that the council reviewed all 77 recommendations made by the council in previous five years. In putting forward this new report, it includes 26 recommendations that, the report notes, “represent a comprehensive analysis of the recommendations provided by the SAAC over the last five years.” The more than two dozen recommendations give a sense of the scale of the work ahead. The council says the recommendations were reviewed with an eye towards supporting four guiding principles:
- Supporting a cultural shift with Peace Corps
- Integrating prevention
- Ensuring trauma-informed programming and approaches
- Strengthening accountability
The recommendations were also organized into four categories within the agency:
- Recommendations across all offices that are part of the agency’s Sexual Assault Risk, Reduction, and Response (SARRR) initiative
- Recommendations for the Office of Safety and Security working group
- Recommendations for the Office of Victim’s Advocacy working group
- Recommendations for the Office of Health Services working group
A cultural shift. Training and reporting. Care and support.
The council reports that, in taking a look back over the past five years of recommendations, many of the recommendations “were similar year over year, or recommended actions shifted based on progress made on earlier recommendations.” The range of recommendations is wide, including a need to make a cultural shift in agency response to sexual assault to expand sexual assault prevention efforts throughout the organization. It calls for improved training and reporting requirements, and it calls for improved care and support for sexual assault survivors.
“Peace Corps should hold all staff at all levels, including country directors and (headquarters) leadership, accountable for upholding the rules and regulations to prevent and respond to sexual assault.”
—Sexual Assault Advisory Council Report
While some of the recommendations are contingent upon the redeployment of Volunteers overseas, many can be worked on now. So the council includes a proposed timeline pegged to individual recommendations that, if followed, will yield significant progress in the next two years.
Accountability: Among its recommendations, the council says “Peace Corps should hold all staff at all levels, including country directors and (headquarters) leadership, accountable for upholding the rules and regulations to prevent and respond to sexual assault. Accountability also includes standardizing trainings and processes using global best practices and content while ensuring room for adaptation to country contexts.”
Prevention Specialist: Noting that all sexual assault staff are clinical or safety/security staff, the council recommends that Peace Corps headquarters hire a sexual assault prevention specialist to implement prevention strategies.
Transparent Communication: The council states the Peace Corps must improve transparency and communication related to its sexual assault prevention and response programming. To undertake that work, it recommends the hiring of a half-time communications staff to support headquarters and country office communication. It also recommends that Peace Corps release an annual sexual assault report similar to reports issued annually by the Department of Defense.
RPCV Engagement: The council recommends continued engagement with Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who have self-identified as having experienced sexual assault: “Peace Corps should co-design with RPCVs themselves a trauma-informed approach to engage these RPCVs in SARRR processes and communications. This must include making support available to these RPCVs to mitigate risk of retraumatization. Resources can include contact information for individuals RPCVs can talk to, hotline numbers, and links to vetted readings, videos, or other content RPCVs can access for information and to mitigate any trauma or re-experienced trauma that surfaces in the course of engaging with PC on SARRR work.”
Volunteer Site Selection: “Peace Corps should update the processes and train all staff on improved processes for site selection and site assignments to support volunteer safety. This includes policies that (1) ensure Volunteers are not placed in sites where any form of violence has been reported; (2) support volunteers who would like to return to service to have a site change (or remain at their site) and to honor their preference and support needs following disclosures of sexual abuse.”
Telehealth: The report recommends that the Peace Corps “contract with a reputable, secure, and reliable video platform to provide online/virtual therapy and medical follow up sessions with Peace Corps Medical Officers or other contracted trained therapists for Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) who have experienced sexual assault. This option would be available for any PCV where their access to technology will allow.”
Inspector General and Victim Advocacy Collaboration: The report recommends improved communication and collaboration between Peace Corps’ Office of Inspector General (OIG) and Office of Victim Advocacy (OVA). “Peace Corps should conduct a review of existing procedures regarding collaboration between OIG and OVA to address gaps and strengthen standardized communications and collaboration between the two offices, particularly to ensure support of the PCV by a victim advocate during the OIG interview process.”
The Ongoing Mission of the Sexual Assault Advisory Council
Peace Corps’ Sexual Assault Advisory Council was established in 2011 when Congress passed the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act. Under an amended version of the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2021 (H.R. 1456), which passed on a strong bipartisan vote in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the work of the advisory council would be extended from 2023 to 2025. Passage of that act — which also includes whistleblower protection for Volunteers — getting it signed into law is a top priority for National Peace Corps Association.
“NPCA will be here to play a critical role in making sure that changes are made … We are committed to holding Peace Corps accountable. This is Peace Corps’ inflection point. It must do better for Volunteers, and I believe that its leadership is committed to doing so.”
—Mary Owen Thomas, NPCA Board of Directors
For the leadership and members of National Peace Corps Association, it bears noting that the first pillar in the organization’s mission is helping Peace Corps be its best. “I applaud the work of the Sexual Assault Advisory Council and hope that this will be a roadmap for improving the safety and security of thousands of Volunteers that will soon return to field,” said Mary Owen-Thomas, a member of the NPCA Board of Directors who served as a Volunteer in the Philippines. “But there is tons of work to be done, and NPCA will be here to play a critical role in making sure that changes are made — beyond what is outlined in the SAAC report. NPCA’s advocacy will continue, and we are committed to holding Peace Corps accountable. This is Peace Corps’ inflection point. It must do better for Volunteers, and I believe that its leadership is committed to doing so.”
The Peace Corps’ Sexual Assault Advisory Council itself is made up of 11 individuals who are leaders in their respective fields — from work with the Johns Hopkins-related health nonprofit organization Jhpiego to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from experts in prevention of gender-based violence to victim advocacy. Five council members are Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, including the chair, Elizabeth Arlotti-Parish (RPCV Guinea), senior technical advisor for gender with Jhpiego; Sarah Bristol (RPCV Ghana and Malawi), director of clinical programs for DC Forensic Nurse Examiners; Kimberly Castelin (RPCV Madagascar) senior service fellow with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Megan Foster (RPCV Rwanda), prevention program coordinator for the Oregon Attorney General’s Sexual Assault Task Force; and Jennifer Hegle (RPCV Thailand), health scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Read more about council members at the end of the report.
What has Peace Corps done in recent months to address sexual assault?
As noted above, the Sexual Assault Advisory Council lauded the Peace Corps agency for undertaking a number of reforms since spring 2021. Those, the agency noted in a release, are “specific, systemic improvements to sexual-assault-related policies and procedures.” Among those, the agency reports, it has:
• Implemented a new Security Incident Management System (SIMS) to better document, track and analyze the agency’s response to crimes against Volunteers, including sexual assaults.
• Made publicly available country-specific health, safety, Volunteer satisfaction, and early termination information.
• Established a post-level case management process that instructs post staff to formally review, with an interdisciplinary team, every sexual assault case within two months of the case report.
• Incorporated the ongoing improvement of the SARRR program into the agency’s four-year strategic plan with a measurable, specific performance goal dedicated to enhancing the program.
• Improved operating procedures for vetting and selecting host families to establish common standards that are consistently documented.
• Updated agency policy to bolster host family and counterpart orientations. This includes expanded guidance around unwanted attention, violence prevention and bystander intervention.
• Closed sexual assault-related Peace Corps Office of Inspector General (OIG) recommendations,* including those listed in half a dozen OIG reports.
The release also noted that the Peace Corps has retained the services of external consultants to “examine the current structure of the SARRR program and to recommend the best staffing and organizational structure to move this work fundamentally forward.”
“There is — and will be — more work to be done,” notes Acting Director Spahn in the release. “We recognize our collective responsibility to help shift organizational, societal, and intercultural norms around sexual violence while creating systems that best support survivors.”
WATCH: “Peace Corps Safety and Security: A Decade of Legislation for Change” | A panel discussion from the Peace Corps Connect 2021 conference in September 2021.
MODERATOR: Maricarmen Smith-Martinez | Chair, NPCA Board of Directors
PANELISTS: Susan Smith Howley J.D. | Project Director, Center for Victim Research at Justice Research and Statistics Association
Sue Castle | Mother of fallen PCV Nick Castle; champion of the Sam Farr and Nick Castle Peace Corps Reform Act of 2018
Casey Frazee Katz | Volunteer in South Africa 2009; founder and director of First Response Action
READ: “Peace Corps Must Do Better” from April 2021. An in-depth work of investigative journalism has shone light on a horrific problem. There are steps we can take now. A statement from Maricarmen Smith-Martinez, Chair of the Board of Directors of National Peace Corps Association.
Story updated November 28, 2021 at 21:00 to correct the number of recommendations put forward in the report and clarify that the report reviewed 77 previous recommendations and puts forward 26.
Rachel Edwards is an Advocacy Intern with National Peace Corps Association and has been involved with work addressing sexual assault on college campuses. Jonathan Pearson is Advocacy Director for National Peace Corps Association.
- Supporting a cultural shift with Peace Corps
Takeaways from the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on October 27, 2021. see more
Takeaways from the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on October 27, 2021
Words by Jonathan Pearson
Transcript editing by Rachel Edwards
Video editing by Orrin Luc
Acting Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on October 27, 2021, for a hearing on Peace Corps’ operations. Spahn fielded a range of questions, including diversity initiatives, recruitment strategies, decolonizing U.S. foreign assistance, and — not surprising — the status of redeployment of Volunteers internationally.
Along with the Peace Corps, the three hour hearing also included representatives of the Millenium Challenge Corporation and the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation.
Below are excerpts from the hearing.
Watch a playlist of clips from the hearing focusing on the Peace Corps.
Bipartisan Praise From the Top
In their opening remarks, Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Ranking Member Michael McCaul (R-TX) praised the work of the Peace Corps and its Volunteers. Chairman Meeks noted the strong, bipartisan passage of “much needed” Peace Corps reauthorization legislation, the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act (H.R. 1456) introduced by RPCV Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA). “With a $400 million-plus budget, the Peace Corps has been able to reach the most remote parts of our world,” Meeks said, “spreading American values and working with local communities to promote and create sustainable development.”
While noting the agency still has much work to do to improve its operations — including addressing sexual assault of Volunteers — Ranking Member McCaul praised the Peace Corps on its 60th anniversary. “Congratulations, Ms. Spahn and to the Peace Corps, and all of your officers on this milestone event,” McCaul said. “I want to thank the incredible Peace Corps Volunteers, especially those from my home state of Texas who have selflessly given their time to do good work for other human beings across the world.”
Spahn on the historical Role of the Peace Corps — and meeting current needs
“As the Peace Corps celebrates its 60th anniversary, we are building on a solid foundation to meet this historic moment, and to set the stage for the next 60 years,” Carol Spahn said. “Our primary focus is to safely return Volunteers to service and to apply our resources in combating the impacts of COVID-19, which are disproportionately affecting countries where Volunteers serve.”
Historically, Spahn said, Peace Corps Volunteers “have been and will be at the last mile reaching some of the most isolated and underserved populations … The pandemic has set back years of development progress and produced unprecedented challenges. It has also underscored our world’s profound interdependence and shared future. Recovery will require international cooperation not only at the government level, but also at the community level. And that is where the Peace Corps as a trusted community partner will return to service in new and time-tested ways.”
When will Volunteers begin to redeploy?
A question on everyone’s mind was raised during an exchange with Rep. Dean Phillips (D–MN) and Acting Director Carol Spahn: What are the plans for Volunteer redeployment and how long will it take for Peace Corps to fully return to the field?
“We will gradually build up.”
—Acting Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn
Spahn did not provide a specific date when redeployment will begin, but she noted the process will be gradual. “We are returning on a country by country basis, based on the conditions in that country — so the initial ramp up will be slow, so that we can test our systems,” she said. “And we will gradually build up after we’ve learned from some of those initial inputs.”
Spahn cited several factors that are being taken into consideration in making decisions on redeployment, including the ability to adapt programming to maximize health and safety; having emergency action plans in place should health conditions in a country deteriorate; and access to stable medical hubs, as well as backup hubs.
“We know that we will be living with COVID for some time,” Spahn said. “There are urgent needs out there, and we believe that we can return Volunteers safely to some countries. And we’ve begun that process.”
Spahn added that some of the 60 countries where Volunteers were serving remain locked down. “Those will be the ones that we will need to push back a little bit further.”
China, South Asia, and the Pacific Region
In response to general questions or statements from committee members regarding growing regional and global influence from China, Spahn outlined parts of agency planning for the South Asia Pacific region. “We are currently looking to get back into countries that we left: Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu,” she said. “We have also opened new country programs in Sri Lanka, and expect to welcome volunteers to Vietnam for the first time. We’re also negotiating a country agreement with Solomon Islands.”
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Recruiting Volunteers and working with the wider Peace Corps community
Chairman Meeks noted that a key priority for him is that the foreign affairs committee examine diversity, equity, and inclusion programs across our nation’s international assistance programs. He praised Spahn and the Peace Corps for its efforts. “I understand also that the Peace Corps has instituted this robust program that you’ve talked about in your opening statement — intercultural competence, diversity, equity, and inclusion — and that you’ve been leading these efforts. You know, and you probably, from my examination, are ahead of a lot of other agencies.”
“Intercultural competence, diversity, equity, inclusion is really at the core of who we are as an agency.”
—Acting Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn
Spahn told the committee that the Peace Corps has redoubled its commitment during the suspension of operations to address intercultural competence, diversity, equality, inclusion (ICDEI), and accessibility. This work, she said, “is at the core of who we are and what we do. Our approach encourages deep humility and builds transferable skills as our staff and volunteers partner at a grassroots level with people from 64 different countries.”
Spahn testified that in the past ten years the percentage of volunteers who identified as people of color increased from 16 percent to 34 percent. She said the agency is expanding outreach to minority-serving institutions of higher education and removing significant financial barriers to service through efforts such as increasing the reimbursements for the cost of medical clearance. She said all worldwide staff have received unconscious bias training, while 80 percent of posts have received five day intensive ICDEI training. Representative Karen Bass (D-CA) asked Spahn to drill down on what the percentages mean — and she asked how the agency is working with the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer community to recruit Volunteers who are people of color.
Spahn pointed to collaboration with groups of returned Volunteers — in particular National Peace Corps Association — that play a critical role in supporting returned Volunteers.
Representative Kathy Manning (D-NC) asked about support for Volunteers who are women, people of color, or identify as LGBTQ. Representative Brad Schneider (D-IL) asked about the focus of Peace Corps on recruiting college graduates — and if that was the best way to meet the needs of communities around the world. Likewise, he asked Spahn to address how Peace Corps Volunteers were playing a role to tackle climate change. Spahn noted that is a priority in environment and agricultural programs as well as education, and that Volunteers frequently serve in communities that are disproportionately affected by climate change.
Decolonizing Foreign Assistance
Citing Peace Corps’ history of being founded at the height of the Cold War, Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-CA) asked Spahn how the agency is addressing this issue. Spahn replied by saying this is an ongoing process, and something “we all need to wrestle with.”
“We’ve just gone through an extensive process to revise each and every one of our project frameworks, developing that logical project framework,” said Spahn. “And in that, in developing those frameworks, we have representatives from the government, we have representatives from NGOs, from counterparts from communities that are impacted, as well as from Volunteers, helping to design where our niche is, and … where we can be most helpful.”
“It has never been about Volunteers going in to make a difference on their own. It is about that partnership, about that deep respect and humility.”
Spahn added that central to Peace Corps service is the spirit of understanding and collaboration. “It has never been about Volunteers going in to make a difference on their own,” she said. “It is about that partnership, about that deep respect and humility. And that is why our Volunteers learn local languages. It is why they live and work at the level of the communities that they serve, but this is a time to ask those important questions.”
‘Development, Democracy, Diplomacy, and Diversity’
In concluding the hearing, Chairman Meeks noted that his priority in taking on the chairmanship of the committee, “I said that my priorities can be categorized into four D’s: development, democracy, diplomacy, and diversity.” Meeks underscored that this work actually saves U.S. taxpayers money; it is far more expensive when the U.S. sends in the military instead of the Peace Corps.
Support and guidance of the Peace Corps and its work “is something where I believe that we can really work in a bipartisan way,” Meeks said. “Because the issues and what your charge is not a partisan issue at all, as often on this committee when we're dealing with foreign affairs. We should not have a partisan divide. And so it is my hope, as the chairman of this committee, that we continue to work with you and you continue to follow up with all of our members, so that we can come in one accord, and focus on the goodness of the people of the United States of America, and continue to lead in that vein. And I think what your agencies do is what demonstrates who we are and why democracy, development, and diplomacy is what should take the lead.”
Jonathan Pearson is Director of Advocacy for National Peace Corps Association. Rachel Edwards is an Advocacy Intern with NPCA. Orrin Luc serves as Digital Content Manager with NPCA.