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

PC081444.JPG

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."