Peace Corps volunteers speak out against "gross mismanagement of sexual assault complaints"


A growing number of ex-Peace Corps volunteers are speaking out via blogs and in news interviews about having survived rape and other forms of sexual assault while assigned overseas. They say the agency ignored their concerns for safety or requests for relocation, and tried to blame rape victims for their attacks. Their stories, and support from families and advocates, are drawing attention from lawmakers and promises of reform from the agency.

One of the women whose story is receiving renewed attention is Kate Puzey (shown in the photo at left). The Peace Corps volunteer was murdered in Benin, apparently by a contractor for the agency she was attempting to anonymously report for the rape of girls at the village school. As I blogged in 2009, I was in Benin, pretty close to that village, the same day she was killed. I remember our local friends from that region expressing horror and sadness at her murder. But we didn't know the backstory yet. More on her case follows.

The Peace Corps 2010 budget: $400 million, government funding, your tax dollars at work. The current director today apologized for the agency's poor response to victims, and specifically the Puzey case.

First: In today's New York Times, an article about the volunteers who are speaking out on sexual assault:

In going public, they are exposing an ugly sliver of life in the Peace Corps: the dangers that volunteers face in far-flung corners of the world and the inconsistent -- and, some say, callous -- treatment they receive when they become crime victims.
From 2000 to 2009, an average of 22 Peace Corps women each year reported being the victims of rape or attempted rape, according to the agency's own records. During that period a total of over 1,000 volunteers reported sexual assaults, including 221 rapes or attempted rapes.

More from the NYT:

Because sexual crimes often go unreported, experts say the incidence is likely to be higher, though they and the Peace Corps add that it is difficult to assess whether the volunteers face any greater risk overseas than women in the United States do.
ABC News has been on this story for a while now, actually well before the Times. In January 2011, 20/20 ran an interview with a Peace Corps volunteer who 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."

And for more than a year, ABC 20/20 has also been on the story of Kate Puzey, the 24-year old from Atlanta who joined the Peace Corps in 2007 and was murdered in 2009.

Her family says agency personnel set her up to be killed, outing her role in the firing of a Peace Corps contractor in Benin whom she accused of raping and sexually abusing children at a school in the northern village of Badjoudé.

Puzey showed remarkable bravery in taking action against the abuse she discovered, and trusted her Peace Corps colleagues to preserve her anonymity to protect her while still in-country. But according to her family, that didn't happen.

From ABC News:

The young woman was found with her throat slit shortly after the employee, Constant Bio, a citizen of Benin, received word from Peace Corps officials that he would be dismissed from his contractor position.

"It just seems very obvious that that was the cause," said Puzey's brother David. "Kate was trying to protect these young girls who were being sexually abused."

The suspect has been in custody since the murder in March 2009 while authorities in Benin investigate. Bio asserted his innocence in a letter to a newspaper in Benin, claiming he was being framed by America.

A related series of ABC News photos, including one of the suspect, is here.

As I blogged that month, I was in Benin when this happened, working with a small NGO unaffiliated with the Peace Corps or any other US aid agencies. The local people who were our hosts and guides were from a village very close to Badjoudé. If I recall correctly, we must have driven by on the very day the murder occurred, just by chance.

The prevailing response, among our African friends there and within the Beninois public in general, was horror and disgust at the killing—and, more or less, "this is why we can't have nice things here." And that was before the backstory came out.

The local paper in Kate's Georgia home town, Forsyth County News, has published several stories on the circumstances of her death (but alas, a paywall blocks access). You can see one of them here for free on an unofficial Peace Corps volunteer messageboard. And here's more about her case, on another site for ex-Peace Corps folks. Below, two videos: Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) pays tribute to Puzey on the senate floor. And below that, a tribute video for Kate created by her friends, "Light a Candle for Kate."


  1. man boingboing, you gotta stop making me use up my lunch break to have a private cry session :(

    Thanks, Xeni, for covering this story. It’s an important one.

  2. “The Peace Corps 2010 budget: $400 million, government funding, your tax dollars at work”

    I agree completely that the Peace Corps should be held accountable for its horrific job in handling the cases of sexual assault and rape, but to imply tax money is being wasted on a bad organization is ridiculous. Our tax dollars go to far worse things than the Peace Corps.

  3. The Peace Corps: Your safety is our top priority unless you are raped or murdered.”

    The current director started in 8/2009, who was the director before that? Let’s see, there is “Acting Director” Jody K. Olsen mourning Ted Kennedy and no mention or announcement of the separation of the previous Director, Ron Tschetter. From the press releases and Mr. Tschetter’s Wikipedia page, he would appear to be a gladhander and more or less clueless bureaucrat who spent most of his time traveling to visit PC outposts. Just a snap judgement, but the guy doesn’t look like he builds many bridges.

    Interesting comment on this blog post from 2008:

  4. My $.02 on the Peace Corps: fix it, don’t kill it. The original promise is noble, as are the intentions of many volunteers.

  5. I wish I was more shocked by this. Either the high rates of sexual assault, or by the beaurocracy’s attempts to ignore/downplay them.

  6. Agh, the light of kindness in her eyes, to know that someone took that from us.

    OTOH the Peace Corps is afaik part of the US State Department, you know it was someone high up in State that made the decisions to hush these things up, State is a bunch of heartless mercenaries. Peace Corps volunteers lives are apparently almost as disposable as that of a soldier or a marine.

    1. So true. This photograph just breaks my heart every time I see it. To imagine what her mom and dad and friends suffered with her loss.

  7. I’m not surprised. The arrogance and criminal behaviour of a lot of NGO’s is beyond belief. From the arsenic poisoning of thousands by UNICEF to the quartermastering of other people’s civil wars by several entities they just seem to skim along without suffering any consequences for their lack of oversight. I guess it’s the secular version of the Roman Catholics putting too much trust in their clergy and then belatedly starting to turn over the rocks to discover a lot of child abuse – “Oh those accusations can’t be true (enough for us to bother to investigate them) because these people are pillars of the community and are thus above suspicion.”

  8. Hey guys. I am currently a (male) Peace Corps Volunteer. I do not want to diminish the terrible treatment that these (mostly) women have endured but I think it is important to hear some of the good aspects of the PC safety and security program.

    Volunteers put themselves at higher risk than if they were to remain in the States and also draw attention to themselves as foreigners. To help mitigate this risk, every country has a safety and security officer whose job is to help with prevention and reaction to any sort of incident that might occur.

    In my country of service, the officer has been nothing but amazing. In the rare instances where Volunteers have expressed security concerns, they problem is dealt with nearly immediately and with as many resources as necessary. Sometimes this includes moving the victim to an entirely different site away from the people who caused the incident(which is no easy task).

    I know that the victims that have recently come out have been hurt and without a doubt, mistreated by Peace Corps. The organization’s policies need to change. However, there are many instances of the organization doing right, something quite difficult given the unique situation we are living in.

    1. Well said. I recall back in 2000 when I was working with a bunch of ex-Peace Corps “vets” in the National Parks system. One particular woman, who later became a friend, revealed some of the hardships she endured while serving in West Africa. Along with contracting dysentery and bacterial infections time and again, she was first physically beaten and robbed by men, then beaten and severely raped. She was offered an early “out” with all of the benefits of having served, but she decided to stay after she recovered. Another colleague, a woman who had faced rape (in the US), asked her why she stayed. “I knew there were risks when I signed up. The people I work with can’t walk away, so why should I?”

      Her statement was indicative of the spirit and courageousness that I’ve seen in my friends who served in the Peace Corps. I thought she was one of the strongest women I had ever met, and she was kind and compassionate, too. People may say what they will about the PC, but I give them great credit for working so hard, with so little, and for so many rewards that very few of us will ever understand.

  9. Yes, i got in argument with one of the local Peace Corp’s teachers in Tarawa in 1988.

    He was addressing the woman not to make a local man “lose face” by yelling or slapping or pushing away and that is was customary to accept sexual pinching and groping as normal behavior for the men of Kiribati.

    I stuck my neck out and contradicted this man, and that it was popper for a woman to scream, yell, slap the guys face to let him know such behavior is wrong.

    Fit the problem, Peace Corps is a wonderful organization.

  10. Everyone, please keep an eye on the case of Kate Puzey, justice may not be served as the man accused of killing her may never go to trial. There MUST be accountability for this sickening crime, for the murderer, and for the Peace Corps. Thank you for featuring this article.

  11. I’m horrified, I’m angry, but I’m not shocked. I don’t have any experience with the Peace Corps, but I have too much experience with AmeriCorps, and if I learned anything there, it’s that the people in charge don’t give a flying fuck about the well being of the volunteers. Volunteers are disposable, and the most important thing is to cover their own asses.

    Hell, the final straw for me was when a formal complaint about an americorps director was made in a “confidential” site inspection meeting, and the site inspector immediately went and tattled to that director with names and details (and bonus slander!) The volunteers were later read the riot act for being “crybabies” and embarrassing the organization.

    I had kind of hoped (though I didn’t really believe) that the Peace Corps was different. I mean, surely it’s an older, more established, more respected organization. Surely there’s more oversight. Surely they value their volunteers.

  12. PC budget was actually recently rolled back to 2008 levels (~300M) if I remember correctly, a drop in the bucket for the government and foreign aid in general (If we are still sending billions to the Pakistan military, come on).

    I was a volunteer in Paraguay from ’06-08 and the PC people on the ground – security, medical, administrators – are some of the best people in the NGO community and some of the best people that I’ve known, period. The problem is that what happens on the ground, as always, is far removed from Washington, which can lead to big problems. I’m glad these RPCVs are bring heard and having the debate. I just hope, as noted in the NYTimes article, that it doesn’t get turned into another salvo against funding the program.

  13. I don’t mean to discredit or dishonor the death of this woman — it was a terrible thing that happened — but if she had known she was in danger, why did she sleep on an unsecured porch? I had bars on every window and a large iron front door and slept with my cutlass at night, and I felt safe in my village in Western Africa. I always took the utmost precautions, as Peace Corps taught me (not the cutlass part… that just made me feel badass).

    I never felt like our Security officer did a “horrific” job by any means, but I also know that our Peace Corps headquarters dealt with volunteers who did stupid stuff, like getting wasted on a nightly basis, sleeping around and creating problems for themselves. I do not suggest that she did any of those things, but a lot of volunteers do, and it undoubtedly affects the organization at the country level. Peace Corps safety was largely up to the individual (and frankly, I preferred it to be that way).

  14. Hmm, sad to see that my earlier comment that questioned the potential usefulness of the Peace Corp in certain areas got deleted lickety split, but something that aims criticism at the Catholic Church (no problem with that, btw) stands.

    Once again, it seems that I forgot to wear my Che shirt to the party and refrain from any criticism of the treatment of women, or the mismanagement of local resources in parts of the world, if it’s done by people in 3rd world countries. After all, it’s part of their proud traditions! And you’re a racist bigot if you say otherwise!

    And, I truly fail to see what’s objectionable about saying that the Peace Corp should be a domestic operation–there’s plenty of places that could use the help right here in the US, and hell, it may actually make a long-term difference (the urban gardening initiatives in my city, NYC, come to mind).

    1. And you’re a racist bigot if you say otherwise!

      Maybe if you didn’t have a history of comments blaming non-white people for all the world’s problems, you’d get treated differently. And maybe if your feminist philosophy actually included some compassion for African women, I would take you seriously. But it doesn’t. So, yes, you are a bigot.

      1. Antonius,

        All the world’s problems? No. Their own, in many cases, at least in part? Yes.

        And where did I say that I didn’t feel bad for the women suffering in 3rd world countries? That’s a world different than pointing out that anything that the Peace Corp or any other NGO does probably can’t make a long-term, lasting difference in their lives.

        It’s horrible, yes, but pointing out the horror and the futility in changing it isn’t racist.

        I’d rather see the money go where permanent results can be seen.

  15. And, I truly fail to see what’s objectionable about saying that the Peace Corp should be a domestic operation…

    Uh, the Peacecorps already has a domestic counterpart. It’s Americorps’ VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program. 1-3 years of full time volunteer work with a focus on anti-poverty programs.

    Like the Peacecorps it’s aimed primarily at new college graduates, and the volunteers do capacity building, organizational development, planning, etc. type work. As opposed to say, digging ditches or ladling soup. You get training before hand, and are then sent out some other part of the US, mostly to very low income urban areas or rural areas. Generally working for a non-profit and/or with local government/colleges on behalf of Americorps.

    As with the Peacecorps, you get a bare minimum stipend that lets you live at approximately the same level as those you serve (mine was about $600 a month in Montana in 2004-5), and education awards to be used for grad school or student loan payoffs at the end of your service.

    So no need to advocate shifting the Peacecorps work from overseas to the US, an equivalent organization already exists here. Not that I think that’s what actually prompted that comment of your’s…

    1. Brillo,

      Thanks for the headsup RE Vista, and yes, I think we DO need more of that kind of thing here in the US–but with the “digging ditches/ladling soup” aspect. Food banks in most cities need volunteers, as does Meals on Wheels, etc.

      Would also like to see a more robust teacher-recruitment program for the States, but that’s another whole post.

  16. Good to have this kind of story on BB sometimes, especially ones that aren’t making the heavy rotation news. Sad, but informative.

    This is one of the hardest things for a 1st world NGO – managing the morality/expectations gap between the very poor people they’re trying to help (who may often be very upright, moral people, but whose interpersonal relationships are nonetheless products of dire poverty and the lack of good educational, vocational, and nutritional opportunities that brings) and the well-fed 1st world workers who are there as part of a successful career and have college degrees, and a bright futures to look forward to (even if they’re on low pay by 1st world standards at the time).

    Clearly, the Peace Corps has (a LOT of) work to do in this area, but let’s not pretend it’s an easy thing to manage.

  17. It’s important to keep in mind that a crucial part of PC training is that you’re not there to impose American cultural values on other cultures. To a degree, you need to adapt to the culture in which you find yourself living and find ways for people to improve their situations for themselves after you leave.

    Some commenters in this thread seem to have mistaken their own personal and cultural values for objective facts.

    How can PC facilitate genuine, unfiltered intercultural experiences (which I assure you is what most PCVs seek) and also watch over individuals in the field?

    1. How can PC facilitate genuine, unfiltered intercultural experiences (which I assure you is what most PCVs seek) and also watch over individuals in the field?
      It would help if the higher ups in PC would have the backs of those in the field and love in their hearts for the people they are supposed to serve, not serve up, or exploit, in any evil corrupted zombie imperialist overlord energy thieving demonic vampire of the poor way… instead of the ridiculous PR or money considerations, or lust and greed, and be brave, and live up to noblese oblige, instead of being coward rapist murder enabler fucks.

  18. Don’t forget Walter Poirier, who went to school with me as a child. He disappeared in Bolivia and his Peace Corps supervisor lied about his last reported whereabouts to cover up the fact that he hadn’t been doing required check-ins. A Congressional investigation turned up evidence of just how venal and self-serving the Peace Corps administration was, reforms were promised…and here we are in 2011 with even worse news. His mother’s heart-breaking website:

    I want to scream, I want to cry.

  19. People are jumping to conclusions here. There is no evidence that Peace Corps told Bio it was Puzey who found him out. Right now it’s only a hypothesis. If you read the whole facts of the story, many students in the town were open about the fact that Bio was a dirtbag. Perhaps it was a local who told Bio she went and reported him to the Peace Corps. Or he just assumed she told Peace Corps. Or Bio was being fired for something totally unrelated and took it out on Puzey. We just don’t know, and at this point to jump to conclusions is just doing more harm than good.

    1. If you want to fight the human urge to jump to unfounded conclusions then add some data. Adding your voice without adding data is just adding to the mess you’re complaining about, as you’re apparently blindly jumping to different conclusions based on different data that we don’t apparently have…. and that you’re not sharing?

  20. wow, this really hit home for me. when i was working in ethiopia i knew a girl in peace corps who was sexually assaulted. nothing was really done about it, and eventually she was expelled from the scheme because she drank to the point of blacking out every night. poor girl.

  21. Very sorry for any PC volunteers who were threatened or harassed..and regret even more, of
    course, any who suffered rape. I cannot speak as to the accuracy of stories that PC did not
    respond appropriately or tried “cover ups.”

    I served two years in western Kenya, from 1980-82, and do not know of any experiences of
    this nature in our group of 30 teachers (male and female). I do know that some young, female
    volunteers mix perhaps too closely with the people in their area of work….that the young are
    prone to party, to disregard security “rules” (suggestions given in training), to drink a bit too
    much at times. Of course, PC should review its handling of this problem, but I hope that all
    female (and male) volunteers maintain a certain reserve, use common sense and extreme
    discretion in movements at night and in certain areas. May not be as “free and easy” as
    young people like, but it is their personal responsibility not to put themselves “in harm’s way,”
    even if life must be a bit duller and safer.

    One PC volunteer in Kenya was raped while I was there. She was riding a “piki piki” (motorbike) in late afternoon. When recovered, she chose to stay in country and continue her work in fish
    farming. All Kenyans were deeply ashamed that any of their countrymen would hard a PC
    volunteer working to help them.

    Viva la Peace Corps ! I hope the NYT will perhaps collect excerpts from some of the letters sent in in defense of this so valuable organization. May it continue, prosper, grow and be appreciated.
    Blanche Pavlis

  22. The PeaceCorp is not the only organization ill managed and that needs to be checked and held accountable. I was sexually assualted while working as an Americorp Vista, throught the CNCS (Corporation for National Communtiy Service) and was completely destroyed by the organization as a result. When I reported what happened I was met with, very forcefully, “What do you want from us?” Then I was pushed into ending the case, hiding, and leaving with no compensation. They blamed me and attempted to destroy my reputation, my esteem, and worth. I am still healing from these wounds. I joined to help people and make a difference. I had no idea that I would be met with such corruption and ruthlessness. I hope that by sharing my story I can findly make a difference and help someone else not meet the same situation as I did, and as so many more voulnteers have faced while dedicating their life to service and the betterment of the world. BOTTOM LINE: THEY NEED TO BE ACCOUNTABLE and YES IT DOES HAPPEN!

  23. I too have been an Americorps volunteer. This experience has left me with a bad attitude, a very poor opinion of an agency that I once respected and wondering why the program keeps being funded. Maybe other programs are different, but I bet they do the same thing mine does, do what they want but make reports look good and write pretty stories. I have watched a totally inept director enable disrespect, irresponsibility, and outright contempt for any authority. Several members have no particular “assignment”, as i call them “XXXX’s flunkies”. I have watched them sit for extended periods of time on their cell phones, hide out in rooms and make videos with their cell phones of them singing, etc. They runnnn from anything that remotely sounds like work, have NO concept of a schedule and routinely “oversleep” or just do not show up. I sincerly think the whole program needs to be chucked!!!!

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