New bill would improve Peace Corps volunteer safety

Lawmakers introduced bills in the House and Senate on Thursday to increase congressional oversight of the Peace Corps and establish safety measures to protect overseas volunteers in dangerous situations.

The bipartisan legislation follows a May 11 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing during which witnesses highlighted problems within the Peace Corps they believe endanger volunteers.

Former volunteers have come forward in recent months to share their experiences with sexual assault while serving abroad. 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.

The Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act is named for a Peace Corps volunteer who was murdered in 2009 while volunteering in Benin, West Africa. Puzey's throat was slit after she revealed to her supervisors in an email that was supposed to remain confidential that she believed a colleague was sexually assaulting students at the school where they both worked.

The proposed legislation features several measures, chiefly extending protection for whistleblower Peace Corps volunteers, such as Puzey.

The House bill would set up an advisory council to review the Peace Corps sexual assault policy, and report back to Congress with its findings. Peace Corp employees also would have to comply with training standards to ensure medical and security staff respond with sensitivity to sexually assaulted volunteers. This training would be tailored to the various countries where volunteers are stationed. The bill also would require victims' advocates would be stationed in each region.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, announced the legislation at a news conference, joined by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Reps. Howard Berman, D-Calif., and Sam Farr, D-Calif.

"The sacrifice of Kate Puzey's life demands that we provide every Peace Corps volunteer with the security and protection necessary to carry out their job," Isakson said during the press conference. "I believe that this legislation will go long way in achieving this goal."

The Peace Corps has begun to enact similar changes on its own, writing up new guidelines for responding to sexual assault, hiring a victims' advocate at Washington headquarters and establishing the Peace Corps Volunteer Sexual Assault Panel to help create new strategies to deal with sexual assault. In 2009, following Puzey's death, the Peace Corps created an interim policy on how to handle sensitive reports and allegations from volunteers. Many advocates and former volunteers still pressed for legislation, however.

Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams has spearheaded the efforts since he was appointed in August 2009.

"The safety and security of our volunteers is Peace Corps' top priority. We will continue to do everything we can to enhance the health, safety and security of these dedicated Americans serving our country overseas," Williams said in a press release after the bills were announced. "The Peace Corps welcomes the work of Congress on this important issue and looks forward to continuing our joint efforts to improve our response to sexual assaults and other crimes."

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