Many young people cannot imagine spending two years away from friends and family just as they are about to embark on a promising career path—let alone in a developing country. For me, it seems almost unbelievable that my Peace Corps service—what will forever be a defining experience in my life—ended almost two years ago.
Although I faced many of the universal challenges that arise during Peace Corps service, such as language barriers, isolation and confronting poverty on a daily basis, I was blessed with an incredible community. The rural village in Northern Cameroon that I called home from 2009 to 2011 became my family. My adopted family included strong women and new siblings who shared their lives with me, took care of me and ultimately taught me more about myself than I could have imagined.
Not every volunteer is as lucky as I was. When you apply to join the Peace Corps, you expect to struggle in a new cultural context and to live without the creature comforts of home. However, for the 60 percent of Peace Corps volunteers who are women, anticipating sexual harassment as a part of your new environment is not the same as facing the stark reality. I watched friends serving in Cameroon struggle with almost constant sexual harassment and aggression. For some, this became a daily annoyance. For others, it ultimately compromised their safety.
All the Peace Corps volunteers I know were and are willing to sacrifice a lot in order to serve – but one thing we should never have to sacrifice is equal access to comprehensive health care and support services. The Peace Corps is now one of the only government sectors in which civil servants are denied funding for abortion services in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. The Peace Corps Equity Act of 2013, proposed earlier this year by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, would fix this unfair statutory prohibition. Volunteers dealing with the aftermath of a sexual assault deserve better. They deserve equitable access to the same set of health services available to other groups receiving health coverage through the federal government.
My fellow Peace Corps volunteers are some of the most passionate, fearless and determined people I know. But I also know that most of us could never have done it alone. My adopted family helped me get through those tough days in village when all I wanted was a shower and a grilled cheese. My Peace Corps family helped me get through 27 months of service with my dedication to improving the health of women and families in Cameroon intact.
As a returned Peace Corps volunteer (RPCV), I still feel that same sense of community. As RPCVs, we share what will most likely be a once in a lifetime experience that others may never understand. For that reason, we owe it to each other and the future volunteers who will follow us to support the Lautenberg bill and to bring equitable medical care to Peace Corps volunteers.