WASHINGTON >> Jess Smochek arrived in Bangladesh in 2004 as a 23-year-old Peace Corps volunteer, with dreams of teaching English and “helping the world.” She left six weeks later a rape victim after being brutalized in an alley by a knife-wielding gang.
When she returned to the United States, the reception she received from Peace Corps officials was as devastating, she said, as the rape itself. In Bangladesh, she had been given scant medical care; in Washington, a counselor implied she was to blame for the attack. For years, she kept quiet, feeling “ashamed and embarrassed and guilty.”
Today, Smochek is among a growing group of former Peace Corps volunteers who are speaking out about their sexual assaults, prompting scrutiny from Congress and a pledge from the agency for reform. In going public, they are exposing an ugly sliver of life in the Peace Corps: the dangers volunteers face in far-flung corners of the world and the inconsistent — and, some say, callous — treatment they receive when they become crime victims. “These women are alone in many cases, and they’re in rough parts of the world,” said Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, who says the Peace Corps’ promises do not go far enough and is sponsoring legislation to force changes in the way it treats victims of sexual assault. “We want the United States to rush in and treat them as a victim of crime like they would be treated here at home.”Founded in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, the Peace Corps has about 8,000 volunteers, as young as 21 and as old as 86, serving in 77 countries. For most, their service is, as the agency’s website boasts, “a life-defining leadership experience.”But every year, on average, 22 Peace Corps women report being the victims of rape or attempted rape, the agency says. From 2000 to 2009, more than 1,000 Peace Corps volunteers reported sexual assaults, including 221 rapes or attempted rapes. Because sexual crimes often go unreported, experts say the incidence is likely higher, though they add it is difficult to assess whether the volunteers face any greater risk overseas than women in the United States.
On Wednesday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee will convene a hearing to examine what its chairwoman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., calls “serious crimes” committed against Peace Corps volunteers, including murder; in announcing the hearing, her office cited “gross mismanagement of sexual assault complaints.”
Lois Puzey, whose daughter Kate was murdered in 2009 while posted in Benin, will testify. So will Smochek, now a board member of First Response Action, a fledgling advocacy group founded by another former volunteer, Casey Frazee. Frazee was sexually assaulted in South Africa in 2009 and came home, she said, determined to not “let the Peace Corps toss me off like I was an isolated incident.”
In an interview Monday, Aaron S. Williams, director of the Peace Corps, said he was committed to revamping the agency’s practices to create a more “victim-centered approach.” He insisted that it was safe for women to serve in the Peace Corps. “We do not place Peace Corps volunteers in unsafe environments,” he said.
But he acknowledged that the agency must modernize its procedures to “make sure that we provide compassionate care” to crime victims. Already, Williams has made some changes, including hiring a “victim’s advocate,” who began work on Monday, and signing an agreement with a nationally known rape crisis group to re-examine his organization’s training and policies.
The changes reflect the work of Frazee, who has spent the last 18 months tracking down Peace Corps sexual assault survivors by reaching out through her blog and on social networking sites. Last year, her work attracted the attention of the ABC program “20/20,” which showed a segment on the women in January. In recent months, Frazee has collected more than two dozen affidavits from other women, who have shared stories that Williams described as “tragic.”
In interviews and documents, they paint a picture of what many call a “blame-the-victim” culture at the Peace Corps.
Jessica Gregg, who was drugged and sexually assaulted in 2007 in Mozambique, said a Peace Corps medical officer “made me write in my testimony that I was intoxicated” and suggested “I willingly had sex with this guy.” She and a number of other women complained that a training video that the Peace Corps uses places too much emphasis on the role of alcohol in sexual assaults; in response, Williams said the video would be replaced.Many, like Kate Finn, who was raped in Costa Rica and now works in the district attorney’s office in Denver as a victim’s advocate, complain that they are not advised on how to prosecute their attackers; a 2010 survey of Peace Corps volunteers revealed that nearly 40 percent of those raped and 50 percent of those sexually assaulted did not report their attacks. Finn said her attacker’s family was on the police force, and she “did not feel safe” reporting what had happened.
Still others say they are given inadequate information about counseling. One survivor, Karestan Koenen, who sought therapy on her own and later became a psychologist who now teaches at Columbia and Harvard, said she was shocked to discover that women today were confronting the same difficulties as she did when she was raped in 1991 in Niger.
“My own experience,” she said, “was that the treatment by the Peace Corps was worse than the rape.”
The women say Williams’ efforts, while promising, are not enough. They want Congress to pass legislation requiring, among other things, that the Peace Corps develop “Sexual Assault Response Teams” to collect forensic evidence, provide emergency health care and advocacy for victims in the wake of attacks. Williams said he was open to such legislation, but has not committed to supporting it.
But whether such a bill would pass Congress is unclear. Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., is co-sponsoring Poe’s bill, but other Democrats are skittish about it; they worry that the legislation, and Wednesday’s hearing, might be used to undermine the Peace Corps — the legacy of a Democratic president — and cut its funding.
The women of First Response Action insist that was never their aim; they say they want to improve the Peace Corps, not destroy it. Smochek, now 30 and a graduate student, said her primary aim was to alert future volunteers, and in the process, perhaps, bring some solace to other sexual assault survivors “to let them know they are not alone.”