On No. 1, Congress passed a bill intended to protect whistleblowers and improve the treatment of survivors of violence and sexual assault. The House passed the Kate Puzey Volunteer Protection Act of 2011 unanimously, following unanimous passage by the Senate on Sept. 26. Yesterday, President Obama signed the bill into law.
The Peace Corps would have to: improve the training of volunteers to reduce the risk of sexual assault; protect whistleblowers; and require the Peace Corps to hire victims’ advocates for each region the agency serves. The bill requires the establishment of sexual assault response teams comprised of safety and security officers, medical staff and an advocate to respond to reports of sexual assault against a volunteer. It also would create an Office of Victim Advocacy within the Peace Corps to help victims get appropriate services, as well as require that volunteers be provided with information on crimes and risks, clear written guidelines on whom to contact in the event of a sexual assault and protections to ensure confidentiality.
The push for these sweeping reforms began with an outcry this spring, when dozens of former Peace Corps Volunteers — led by non-profit organization First Response Action — came forward and revealed that they had been raped during their overseas service and subsequently ignored or mistreated by the Peace Corps when they reported their attacks.
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 Beninese Peace Corps employee was molesting female students. The suspect’s brother worked as a manager in the Peace Corps office. She was found with her throat slit shortly after the suspect received word from Peace Corps officials that he would be dismissed from his contractor position.
“Kate was a remarkable young woman who unselfishly went to Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer and was tragically murdered while helping others,” said Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson, who sponsored the bill, in a release. “Through the Kate Puzey Volunteer Protection Act, Kate’s life will be memorialized by this new law to provide added protections, victims’ rights and whistleblower status for Peace Corps volunteers.”
The Peace Corps has sent more than 200,000 Americans to serve in 139 countries since its founding in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. Currently, more than 9,000 volunteers are serving in 76 nations. On average, 22 rapes and 267 assaults to Peace Corps volunteers are reported every year. Peace Corps data also suggest that twice as many assaults occur than are reported.