Peace Corp Volunteers Speak Out About Rape and Assault

May 12, 2011

WASHINGTON — Jessica Smochek told members of Congress on Wednesday that, after being brutally gang-raped in Bangladesh in 2004, a Peace Corps medical officer refused to give her a proper physical examination. Instead, the medic confiscated the former English teacher’s cellphone so that she could not alert her fellow volunteers and instructed her to tell anyone who asked about her sudden departure from the program that she was returning to the U.S. to get her wisdom teeth out. When Smochek arrived in Washington, D.C., a Peace Corps official asked her to write down everything she had done to provoke the attack.

“Shortly after I left, the country director — who never attempted to contact me after I was raped — called a meeting of several women in my former volunteer group and told them, without my permission, what had happened to me,” she said. “Then, he told them that rape was a woman’s fault and that I had caused what happened to me by being out alone after 5:00 PM. As for the other women in the group, who had been very vocal about being constantly stalked and afraid, he threatened them with administrative separation.”

Smochek was one of a growing number of former Peace Corps volunteers who are speaking out about the sexual assaults they endured while serving abroad. Their stories have sparked Congressional hearings, as well as pledges for institutional reform.

Since it was founded in 1961, the Peace Corps has sent 200,000 volunteers to 139 countries. Between 2000 and 2009, an average of 22 women each year report being victims of rape or attempted rape, the agency told HuffPost Wednesday. There have been more than 1,000 sexual assaults and 221 rapes or attempted rapes in that time. Since sexual crimes often go unreported, experts note the numbers may be significantly higher.

At a meeting of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, lawmakers heard from three former Peace Corps volunteers about their experiences as victims of violence and sexual assault while serving overseas, as well as from Lois Puzey, whose daughter, Kate Puzey, was murdered while serving in Benin in 2009. The hearing, led by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), highlighted not only the perils volunteers faced while abroad, but the agency’s lack of support for victims of abuse.

“The social support that a victim receives in the hour after the assault occurs is the key factor in assuring whether the victim will have long-term mental health problems,” said Karestan Koenen, a Peace Corps rape victim who now teaches psychology at Columbia and Harvard. “We ourselves question our behavior. Blaming the victim just adds to the questioning of your own blame and it can stop you from seeking help that you need because you are afraid that other people will respond the same way.”

Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams apologized on Wednesday for the agency’s failure to respond compassionately or offer assistance to the Peace Corps’ victims of sexual assault and violence. Williams signaled that he is ready and willing to work with Congress to craft legislation aimed at institutional reform.

4 Responses to “Peace Corp Volunteers Speak Out About Rape and Assault”

  1. Madge Woods Says:

    This is so not right. I hope this helps put light on this issue and they help their volunteers stay out of harm’s way.

  2. Lisa Kaser Says:

    Hard to put into words the dismay I feel and anger towards the directors in the field and officials who are offering no assistance regarding these cases. How can this not be seen as the crime and horrendous violation that it is? Unbelievable. They are brave women who have spoken out and refuse to be put down. Difficult to read but a good one none the less. Thanks.

  3. the husband Says:

    we raise our children to care for others, serve a greater purpose, make a difference in the world. there is no excuse for treating our children, our precious children like they have no value. this is inexcusable. our government systems cannot fail those who work on their behalf, and yet this is often standard fare.

  4. KimLP Says:

    I find this so disturbing. I hope the awareness you and others are bringing will assist in shining the spotlight of attention on a disturbing series of policies and attitudes held towards our altruistic daughters.

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