WASHINGTON – After Karestan Koenen was raped by a local man soon after she arrived in Niger as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1991, she says she got no support from local Peace Corps officials and a chilling reception when she was sent back to Washington.
“I was sent to speak with a Peace Corps staff investigator, who said, ‘I am so sick of you girls going over there, drinking, dancing and partying, and then if a guy comes on to you, you say you were raped,’ ” Koenen told a congressional committee Wednesday.
“My final straw was when my Peace Corps country director said to me, ‘It’s your word against his, he said you wanted to have sex, and we believe him.’ ”
According to testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, the problem has not abated and the Peace Corps is not doing enough to stop the attacks or to help the victims. More than 1,000 incidents of sexual assault have been reported by Peace Corps volunteers over the last 10 years, including 115 in 2009. Experts said that number is likely an underestimate, since many victims of sexual violence do not report the crime.
Carol Clark was a Peace Corps volunteer 1984 to 1985 in Nepal, where she was raped in two different incidents by Nepalese men, one of them her Peace Corps program director. Back in the United States, Clark was assigned a counselor who told her that because she had failed to learn from the rapes, she had a personality disorder. Clark described the counselor as “a cruel and judgmental adversary.”
“I thought I was alone in my experience, but when I learned that women today were still living through what I thought had been dealt with decades ago, I knew I had to come forward,” Clark said.
Several members of the committee vowed to the witnesses that they would pass legislation to reform the Peace Corps.
“We have a profound obligation to our volunteers to do everything possible, not only to improve their safety and prevent these crimes from occurring, but to respond effectively in emergency situations,” said Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the committee.
Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams said his organization is committed to reform and has been working to reduce danger and improve response to incidents of sexual violence. He said the Peace Corps has recently appointed a victim’s advocate that will coordinate support services, developed new training processes for staff that will start this summer and is collaborating with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, an anti-sexual violence organization, to improve understanding of proper victim treatment.
“Rest assured that this type of thing, blaming the victim, will not continue in the Peace Corps today,” Williams said. “We have to listen to our volunteers.”