Serving in the United States Peace Corps is an incredible experience for so many volunteers. My experience in Benin, West Africa inspired my commitment to international education and women’s issues. At the same time, a tragedy that occurred during my Peace Corps service stirred my belief that Peace Corps volunteers deserve the same protection as federal employees serving in other capacities.
During my Peace Corps service in Benin, a friend and dear colleague, Kate Puzey, was murdered. Kate was killed in March 2009 after reporting to the Peace Corps that she believed a teacher in her school and village was sexually harassing and sleeping with other students. The teacher was let go from his contractor position with the Peace Corps, unknown to Kate. A few weeks later, someone slit her throat as she slept on her front porch. For many months, Kate’s family did not receive information about what had happened to Kate. The family still awaits a trial as suspects remain in the Beninese prison system.
However, as a result of this tragedy, family and friends of Kate fought for the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, which was passed on Nov 21, 2011. The Kate Puzey Act ensures that the Peace Corps protects whistleblowers like Kate, improves the training of Peace Corps volunteers and staff to reduce sexual assault risk, provides support for victims of crime and sexual assault, and provides support to their families.
The Peace Corps has come a long way from the lack of protection and standard procedures that existed in 2009. Since the passage of the act, the Peace Corps has established a Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Response Program, established procedures for responding to sexual assault, and provided staff training. It has also created an Office of Victim Advocacy to assist volunteers after a crime, prepared new regulations and training for Peace Corps staff on reporting and response, and established a volunteer safety system which maintains volunteers’ safety and confidentiality .
Now it’s time for Congress to step up and do its part to bring equitable medical care to Peace Corps volunteers and trainees. The Peace Corps is now one of the only government sectors in which civil servants are denied funding for abortion services in the cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. Other federal employees have this benefit, but it has not been extended to Peace Corps volunteers and trainees.
No volunteer should face life endangerment because they cannot access a medical procedure that is safe and legal in America. The Peace Corps Equity Act of 2013, introduced by the late Sen-Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), would bring equitable medical care to Peace Corps volunteers and trainees. Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee included the act’s provisions in the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill. The legislation now moves to the full Senate for consideration.
The passing of the Peace Corps Equity Act would extend protections to those who serve, just as was advocated for after the tragic loss of Kate Puzey. Female volunteers should never face crime or sexual assault alone, and they should have access to comprehensive health care and services just like other federal employees who serve this country.
Jordan Steiner served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin from 2007-2009.