As a Peace Corps Volunteer, one readily accepts President John F. Kennedy’s assertion that “life in Peace Corps will not be easy.” In fact, that’s why many of us signed up to join the Peace Corps, in an effort to serve in developing countries and work in areas such as education, business development, and environmental awareness.
While more than 8,000 volunteers currently serve in the Peace Corps, they do so knowingly facing inherent risks to their safety and security by virtue of living and working overseas. Given the diversity of health and safety concerns for its volunteers, Peace Corps rightly provides a vast array of medical services, including primary care, hospitalization, and prescriptions.
I am personally familiar with this concept, as I was a community health volunteer in Togo, West Africa. Whether it was for stomach ailments from consuming new foods, feeling under the weather in a tropical climate, or a fractured collarbone from when my bush taxi flipped into several trees, I needed Peace Corps to be there for me in my most insecure moments. To that end, when I was physically compromised, the Peace Corps gave me thorough medical evaluations, provided me with medical care, and paid for my subsequent treatments.
However, as a male, I recognize that there is one glaring exception in medical services for women serving in Peace Corps – any female volunteer that experiences sexual assault during their service is unfairly denied access to comprehensive health care and support services. Women make up about 60 percent of Peace Corps volunteers serving abroad. Over the last decade, more than 1,000 Peace Corps volunteers have reported experiencing sexual assault, including more than 212 rapes or attempted rapes. Further, many more sexual assaults have likely gone unreported. When it comes to abortion, Peace Corps denies these women the basic equity and fairness in access to health care and in making personal medical decisions that it provides for all other medical situations faced by volunteers throughout the world.
If Peace Corps volunteers or trainees are raped while volunteering abroad, the Peace Corps will not cover abortion services. This has been true since 1979, when annual appropriations acts prohibited the Peace Corps from covering abortion services for its volunteers and trainees, including in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is at risk. This past December, President Obama and Congress lifted a similar statutory ban on giving female military service members insurance coverage for abortions in cases of rape and incest. Moreover, federal government employees who oversee the Peace Corps as administrative staff in Washington and overseas have greater health coverage than the volunteers they serve, as they are also able to access health insurance that would cover abortions in cases of rape and incest.
A recent legislative proposal by the late Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), entitled “The Peace Corps Equity Act of 2013,” would end the statutory prohibition preventing the Peace Corps from providing its volunteers with insurance coverage for abortion in cases of rape or incest, or when the life of the woman is endangered.
Volunteers know that life in the Peace Corps is not easy. However, life in the Peace Corps, if it results in sexual assault, should not mean a unique hardship for women. I support The Peace Corps Equity Act of 2013, and I hope other male Returned Peace Corps Volunteers will join me in this effort.
Jeff Locke is currently a graduate student at Boston College Law and Harvard Kennedy School. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo from 2005 – 2007.