Entries in peace corps (6)


It's Unanimous: Congress Passes Law to Protect Peace Corps Volunteers

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- After an ABC News report about the murder of a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, Congress has passed a bill designed to protect whistleblowers and improve the treatment of victims of violence and sexual assault.

"We're so gratified, and actually amazed, that it's come to fruition, and that other volunteers will be able to hopefully serve safely," said Lois Puzey, mother of Peace Corps volunteer Kate Puzey, who was killed in 2009. "And if God forbid something happens, that they will have the support they need, which is what our family...did not get."

The House passed the Kate Puzey Volunteer Protection Act of 2011 by unanimous consent Tuesday evening, following unanimous passage by the Senate on Sept. 26. The bill now goes to President Obama to be signed into law.

The bill is named for 24-year-old Kate Puzey of Georgia, who was murdered in Benin in 2009 after telling superiors she believed a fellow Peace Corps employee was molesting female students. In an investigation that aired on 20/20, ABC News told the story of Kate's murder and examined what critics say has been a "blame-the-victim" culture within the Peace Corps when volunteers are assaulted or attempt to report problems.

Lois Puzey thanked ABC News' 20/20 for bringing attention to the case, and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R.-Georgia, for shepherding the bill through to passage. "Just having this bill passed, this law, is going to give us a lot of healing."

Sen. Isakson and Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, introduced the bill with a Capitol Hill press conference this summer. "The time has come to stand up and protect America's angels abroad," said Poe at the press conference. On the House floor Tuesday night, Rep. Poe said he hoped the bill would make volunteers feel safe "so that more and more go join the Peace Corps," and also credited ABC News with highlighting the issue of crime against Peace Corps volunteers.

"One reason it came to light was because of an ABC 20/20 special that was on January the 14th outlining the plight of individual Peace Corps volunteers and how they were treated," said Rep. Poe. "In some cases our volunteers were treated like the criminals and they weren't treated like victims.... And those days need to end." Sen. Isakson told ABC News Tuesday that he was "overjoyed" at the bill's passage, and grateful to all who worked on the legislation.

"Kate was a remarkable young woman who unselfishly went to Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer and was tragically murdered while helping others," said Sen. Isakson. "Kate's life will be memorialized by this new law to provide added protections, victims' rights and whistleblower status for Peace Corps volunteers. It is my sincere hope that this day might bring a small bit of comfort to the Puzey family."

The bill requires the Peace Corps to improve the training of volunteers to reduce sexual assault risk, would protect whistleblowers, and would require the Peace Corps to hire victims' advocates for each region the agency serves.

Kate Puzey was serving in a village in the West African nation of Benin in March 2009 when she began to suspect that a Peace Corps employee named Constant Bio, a citizen of Benin, was sexually harassing and sleeping with female students at the school where she taught. She sent an email to country headquarters reporting her suspicions and recommending he be fired.

"Please believe me, I'm not someone who likes to create problems, but this has been weighing heavily on me," reads the email she sent, obtained by ABC News.

Bio's brother worked as a manager in the Peace Corps office and Puzey asked her role be kept secret. She was found with her throat slit shortly after Bio received word from Peace Corps officials that he would be dismissed from his contractor position.

The suspect has been in custody since the murder while authorities in Benin investigate. Bio asserted his innocence in a letter to a newspaper in Benin, claiming he was being framed by America. Benin authorities have said they do not yet have enough evidence to try Bio.

The Puzey family believes that the Peace Corps failed to protect Kate, and then kept them in the dark about what had happened.

"It hurts us very deeply," said Kate's father, Harry Puzey, in an interview for 20/20.

"We wouldn't be sitting here, I think, if they had been more transparent with us, more honest with us," added Lois Puzey.

Carrie Hessler-Radelet, the Peace Corps deputy director, refused to say whether the agency bore any responsibility for Kate Puzey's death, citing the ongoing criminal investigation in Benin. "I cannot say because the investigation is not complete," she told ABC News.

Critics of the Peace Corps say the agency has a culture that tries to downplay violent incidents overseas and make victims feel responsible for their own misfortunes. Women who were sexually assaulted while serving as Peace Corps volunteers told ABC News that the treatment they received after they were attacked was sometimes worse than the assaults themselves, and that the agency seemed ill-equipped to deal with victims.

Casey Frazee, who was assaulted while serving in South Africa, formed a group called First Response Action to pressure the Peace Corps into reforming its treatment of victims and updating its sexual assault prevention program.

Frazee hailed the Kate Puzey bill as a breakthrough, and noted that the Peace Corps had worked with First Response Action and members of Congress on reform. "First Response Action is thrilled to see legislation come to fruition that supports Peace Corps Volunteers who report or experience a crime, whether as a victim or a whistleblower," said Frazee. "We are thankful to Congressman Poe and Senator Isakson for working closely with us and Peace Corps to generate this legislation." Cosponsors of the bill include Sen. Barbara Boxer, (D-Calif.), and Reps. Howard Berman and Sam Farr, both California Democrats.

In a statement, Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams said the "safety and security of our volunteers is Peace Corps' top priority."

"The Peace Corps welcomes the work of Congress on this important issue," said Williams, "and looks forward to continuing our joint efforts to improve our response to sexual assault and other crimes."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Peace Corps Vows to Aid Sexually Abused Volunteers

Getty Images/PeaceCorps [dot] gov(WASHINGTON) -- The head of the Peace Corps told Capitol lawmakers Wednesday that major changes were underway in light of testimony by former female volunteers who alleged they were raped and then ignored during their time with the agency.

Speaking before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Peace Corps director Aaron Williams said the women who came forward to claim that superiors told them they were somehow asking to be sexually assaulted have "opened our eyes to what we need to correct and we need to correct it now."

Among other things, the Peace Corps will no longer use a training tape in which rape victims describe what they might have done wrong to encourage their attackers.

Williams promised the House panel, "Rest assured, this type of thing, blaming the victim, will not continue in the Peace Corps of today."

Congress decided to hold hearings on the problem following an ABC News investigation which found that over 1,000 female Peace Corps workers have reportedly been raped or sexually abused overseas and were often blamed by agency officials for the attacks.

The lawmakers also heard from former Peace Corp workers including Jess Smochek, who said she was gang-raped while serving in Bangladesh in 2002.  Smochek claimed her cellphone was taken away by a Peace Corps medical officer so she couldn't alert other women, and that the officer refused to examine her.  She was also told to say she was returning to the U.S. to have wisdom teeth removed.

Smochek was later instructed by an official to recount anything she might have done to encourage her attackers.

To add further insult to injury, Smochek said she found out afterwards that the agency's director in Bangladesh told other female volunteers that she was to blame for her rape and that women are the ones responsible for bringing on sexual assaults.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Female Volunteers to Testify on Peace Corps' Safety Measures

Peace Corp [dot] gov/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Some female volunteers who say the Peace Corps did little to protect their safety will testify before a House committee on Wednesday.

On its website, the Peace Corps says the safety and security of its volunteers is its highest priority.  But while many volunteers have treasured their experiences, an ABC News investigation found that over 1,000 young women in the Corps have been either raped or assaulted in the last decade.

In some cases, victims say, the Peace Corps has ignored safety concerns and later tried to blame the women who were raped for bringing on the attacks.

One woman who got pregnant from a rape says she was was told to get an abortion or leave the organization.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Rape Victim Jess Smochek Honored By Congress

Getty Images/PeaceCorps[dot]gov(WASHINGTON) -- A Peace Corps volunteer who spoke out on 20/20 about being gang raped while serving in Bangladesh will be honored by Congress Wednesday evening for her work on behalf of victims.

Jess Smochek, 29, of Pennsylvania, will receive the 2011 Suzanne McDaniel Public Awareness Award from the bipartisan Congressional Victims' Rights Caucus at a Capitol Hill ceremony attended by members of Congress and victims advocates. After she was attacked, Smochek helped raise awareness of sexual assaults on Peace Corps volunteers and what she and other advocates consider the Corps' lack of support for victims.

"Thanks to the courage and determination of Jessica Smochek," said Rep. Ted Poe, R.-Texas, co-chair of the Caucus, "the mistreatment of victims of violence and the inadequate response from the Peace Corps has captured the attention of the nation" Rep. Poe, who will host tonight's event along with Caucus co-chair Rep. Jim Costa, D.-California, called Smochek's advocacy on behalf of victims "inspiring" and said that because of her Congress will have hearings next month "to hold the Peace Corps accountable" for the safety of volunteers.

Smochek told ABC News it was "incredibly humbling" to be recognized by the Victims' Rights Caucus. "They are my heroes, both for the work they've done for so many vulnerable populations and for the work I believe some of them are doing even now to help make sure my story won't have to be retold by future Peace Corps Volunteers."

Smochek was attacked while serving as a volunteer in Bangladesh in 2004. She says that a group of men began to stalk her from the very first day she arrived in the city where she was assigned. The men tried to kiss her and touch her, and ultimately gang raped her.

"They all took turns raping me," she told ABC News. "They raped me with their bodies. They raped me with foreign objects."

Smochek told ABC News about the attack in a joint interview with five other former volunteers who also were rape or sexual assault victims.

The gang rape occurred, she says, after Peace Corps officials in Bangladesh ignored her pleas to be relocated.

"Every day we felt unsafe. And we reported everything, we just kept reporting," she said.

She says the gang rape took place just hours after a Peace Corps safety official filed a report with the local police but again ignored her pleas for re-assignment. She says the young men knew she had complained to the police.

"They slammed me against the wall and just started threatening me, they're calling me a filthy American whore," she said. "'We told you to stop going to the police. And now we have to kill you.'" Smochek was left unconscious in a back alley.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Family of Murdered Peace Corps Volunteer Mounts Candlelight Vigil On Capitol Steps

Peace Corp[dot]gov/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The second anniversary of the tragic murder of a Peace Corps volunteer will be marked by a candlelight vigil on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on Friday, March 11. The family of Kate Puzey, a 24-year-old from Atlanta who was murdered in Benin, West Africa in 2009, organized the event in hopes that the Peace Corps will mark its own 50th anniversary by offering greater protection to whistleblowers. 
Ms. Puzey was murdered after telling her superiors that one of her co-workers was sexually abusing young girls in their charge.

"It was originally devastating to discover that there were no whistleblower policies in place prior to our daughter's death and to see Peace Corps' lack of response to us as a grieving family," said Kate's mother Lois Puzey, who will be meeting with members of Congress on Thursday and Friday.

At Friday's vigil, participants will light 25 candles to honor all the volunteers who've been murdered while serving overseas since the organization was founded in 1961.

The vigil will also honor volunteers who have survived sexual assaults. Members of Congress and activists who hope to improve the Corps' response to sexual assaults against volunteers will be on the Capitol steps for the 6:30 p.m. event. At the end of the month, Congress will hold hearings about sexual assaults against Peace Corps volunteers.

The Puzeys were interviewed by ABC News' 20/20 for a January report on their daughter's murder. Kate Puzey had written an email to Benin's Peace Corps headquarters reporting that a fellow Peace Corps employee, a local man who taught in the same village as she, had raped some of her seventh-grade students, and suggesting that the Peace Corps take action.

Kate's parents told ABC News that the Peace Corps failed to protect their daughter, and that they suspect her email was shown to the brother of the man she reported, who worked at Benin headquarters. Two weeks after she sent the email, Kate was found with her throat slit. The man she reported, Constant Bio, is the prime suspect. Both he and his brother are being held by local authorities as part of an ongoing criminal investigation. Bio has maintained that he is innocent.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Peace Corps Gang Rape: Volunteer Says U.S. Agency Ignored Warnings

Photo Courtesy - Getty Images/Peace Corps[dot]gov(WASHINGTON) -- More than 1,000 young American women have been raped or sexually assaulted in the last decade while serving as Peace Corps volunteers in foreign countries, an ABC News 20/20 investigation has found.

In some cases, victims say, the Peace Corps has ignored safety concerns and later tried to blame the women who were raped for bringing on the attacks.

"I have two daughters now and I would never ever let them join the Peace Corps," said Adrianna Ault Nolan of New York, who was raped while serving in Haiti.

She is one of six rape and sexual assault victims who agreed to tell their stories, in hopes the Peace Corps will do a better job of volunteer training and victim counseling.

In the most brutal attack, Jess Smochek, 29, of Pennsylvania was gang raped in Bangladesh in 2004 by a group of young men after she says Peace Corps officials in the country ignored her pleas to re-locate her.

"They all took turns raping me," she told ABC News. "They raped me with their bodies,. They raped me with foreign objects."

Smochek says the group began to stalk her and tried to kiss her and touch her from the very first day she arrived at the city where she was assigned.

"Every day we felt unsafe. And we reported everything, we just kept reporting," she said in an interview with five other former volunteers who also were rape or sexual assault victims.

She says the gang rape took place just hours after a Peace Corps safety official filed a report with the local police but again ignored her pleas for re-assignment.

She says the young men knew she had complained to the police.

"They slammed me against the wall and just started threatening me, they're calling me a filthy American whore," she said. "'We told you to stop going to the police. And now we have to kill you,'" she said.

"I was in so much pain that I just told them, 'Just kill me. Please. Just do it.'" Smochek was left unconscious in a back alley.

She says the Peace Corps immediately began to cover up what happened to her, fearful, she says, of offending officials in Bangladesh.

"When the decision was made that I was to go to Washington, D.C., I was told to tell volunteers that I was having my wisdom teeth out," Smochek says.

Peace Corps deputy director Carrie Hessler-Radelet said she was unaware of the gang rape of Jess Smochek because she was only recently appointed.

She denied the Peace Corps has attempted to cover up or keep quiet the large number of rapes and sexual assaults.

"This is the first I've heard of any report of that nature," she said.

The country director for the Peace Corps in Bangladesh at the time, Silas Kenala, told ABC News that because he no longer is a Peace Corp employee he cannot speak about the case. "All I can tell you is that I did what was required to be done according to Peace Corps procedures," Kenala told ABC News.

The Peace Corps pulled all of its volunteers out of Bangladesh in 2006, citing possible "terrorism" issues.

Between 2000 and 2009, Peace Corps figures show there were 221 rapes or attempted rapes, 147 major sexual attacks and 719 other sexual assaults—defined as unwanted or forced kissing, fondling or groping.

According to the figures, there is a yearly average of 22 rapes. There were 15 in the year for which the figures are most recently available, 2009

Peace Corps officials say the number of rapes has gradually declined over the decade.

But some victims say the Peace Corps has continued to treat them in an insensitive way.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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