U.S. Foreign Assistance

The Right to Choose: Supporting Female Peace Corps Volunteers

Anyone who knows me at all knows that I served in the Peace Corps and how much I loved the experience because I talk about it all the time, to whomever will listen. I am extremely proud to have been a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador, which was definitely one of the hardest and best experiences of my life.

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Sarah with her neighbors during her Peace Corps service in El Salvador.

Being a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador, I saw the importance of reproductive rights on a daily basis. El Salvador is one of the few countries in the world where abortion is illegal under all circumstances. A woman can be jailed even in the case of a miscarriage. The country is plagued by machismo and women are also subject to violence, such as sexual harassment, assault, rape, domestic abuse and even kidnapping. On average, one woman is killed every single day.

Unfortunately, services for women who have been victims of violence or rape are limited and many cases of abuse are simply not reported because of the fear of being victimized again by the police. It was never easy for me or my fellow female volunteers to see women who had been abused by their husbands or have women leave a group because they had been told that they were spending too much time outside of the home. In addition, we were confused to find out that there was no comprehensive self-defense training included in the Peace Corps training. When we, the female volunteers, demanded the training, we had to resort to getting a currently serving volunteer to teach us the basics.

Overall, the in-country Peace Corps staff that took care of us in our ups and downs made the overall experience easier, and I don’t know what I would have done without their support. But in the event that one of us was assaulted and needed an abortion, their hands were tied. While abortion, including in the case of rape, is not covered in federal health plans for Peace Corps volunteers, getting pregnant and carrying the pregnancy to term is. In fact, it was an inside joke among volunteers that the best time to have a baby is during your Peace Corps service.

We were told that while the medical staff would be there for the health evaluation, support and counseling sessions needed if a volunteer became pregnant, they could not fund the costs associated with getting an abortion. It was extremely frustrating to be told that there was nothing our in-country staff and directors could do to help us with those financial burdens should the need arise.

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Sarah on a waterfall hike with her students in El Salvador.

Since 1979, Peace Corps volunteers have been the only group that face a total ban on coverage for abortion—including in the cases of rape, incest and life endangerment. All other federal employees, including Peace Corps employees, are covered under those limited circumstances. That’s why I was so pleased to see the House Appropriations Committee pass an amendment this week to rectify this inequity, and give Peace Corps volunteers the same access as all other federal employees. Since both the Senate and House appropriations bills have now removed the ban, it should not be subject to further negotiation. Coverage for abortion in cases of life endangerment, rape, and incest should be available to Peace Corps volunteers once the final FY 2015 appropriations legislation is enacted into law later this year.

The U.S. should provide and support equal access to all reproductive health services, both here and abroad. Peace Corps volunteers, as citizens serving our country, deserve full and comprehensive health care—no matter the situation or circumstance.

One Response to “The Right to Choose: Supporting Female Peace Corps Volunteers”

  1. Kelly

    Hey Sarah! Great piece and so well-written. Way to raise awareness about this important issue!!

    Reply

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