By: Becky Koenig
Peace Corps volunteers will soon have more peace of mind, thanks to an anticipated law named for a College of William and Mary alumna. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Kate Puzey Volunteer Protection Act of 2011 by unanimous consent Tuesday, sending the bill to the White House for the president’s signature.
The legislation, which the Senate passed Sept. 26, will amend the Peace Corps Act of 1961 to require the federal volunteer program to develop protocol for handling sexual assault cases and offering protection to victims and whistleblowers. It is named for Kate Puzey ’06, who was murdered in 2009 while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin, Africa, after she accused a Peace Corps employee of sexually abusing children at the school where she taught.
“The objective of the legislation is to codify the reforms we have put in place to ensure the Peace Corps continues to be safe and secure for Americans who serve,” Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams said in an interview in July.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, which has attracted College alumni since the program’s inception in 1961. In the past half-century, 560 College alumni have served in the program; 41 alumni were serving as of February. The College was named a top Peace Corps volunteer producer in the organization’s 2011 ranking, placing eighth among medium-sized universities, which were defined as those with undergraduate populations between 5,001 and 15,000.
Puzey’s death sparked scrutiny over how the Peace Corps handles reports of sexual assault. At a congressional hearing in May, Puzey’s mother and three former Peace Corps volunteers who had been raped testified that the program did not provide adequate safety training and reacted inappropriately when victims reported sexual assaults.
In 2009, the most recent year for which data is available, the Peace Corps recorded 15 reported incidents of rape or attempted rape and 96 other cases of sexual assault. There are roughly 8,600 volunteers serving in the Peace Corps in any given year. In 2009, 60 percent of Peace Corps volunteers were women.
Negative publicity has not deterred College alumni from becoming Peace Corps volunteers. Rachel Jones ’11, who will leave for Morocco in March for her two years of service, said she feels the recent increased attention to safety will benefit new volunteers.
“When this came out, I actually thought it’s probably a good thing for me because it means that they’re working on it, and it’s an issue they’re aware of,” she said. “It’s a time when they’re even more concerned with making sure women are protected.”
Jones said she was aware of the job’s potential dangers before she entered the Peace Corps.
“It is scary, but when I signed up to do the Peace Corps, I knew there were all sorts of risks involved and that it comes with the territory of living internationally,” she said. “I feel like living in the United States and driving in cars is dangerous. There are so many things to be concerned about that I’m not too extra afraid of being somewhere else, as long as I’m integrated into the culture well.”
Since coming under investigation, the organization has taken steps to prevent sexual assault, including forming panels to study cases, hiring a victim advocate and establishing a case tracking system. Training is now more tailored to the cultural norms of each region, and volunteers are encouraged to report every incident to their supervisors.
Jones said she was not asked to sign a liability waiver, and that, rather than talking specifically about safety, Peace Corps officials have emphasized the importance of integrating into host communities.
“They try as much as possible to give people a realistic look of what it’s going to be like,” she said. “They don’t want people who go to be unprepared.”
Puzey’s mother, Lois Puzey, expressed appreciation for the bill’s passage in an interview with ABC News.
“We’re so gratified, and actually amazed, that it’s come to fruition and that other volunteers will be able to hopefully serve safely, and if — God forbid — something happens, that they will have the support they need,” she said.
Puzey majored in sociology, minored in management at the College and served with the tutoring program Project Phoenix.
Becky Koenig conducted some research and interviews in this article at the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire.