WASHINGTON - It was an extraordinarily dramatic scene, even for Congress: three Peace Corps volunteers raped while serving overseas, along with the mother of a fourth who was murdered in Benin, complaining to lawmakers about one of the government's most revered agencies.
"I want the young women who go into the Peace Corps today to be protected," said Carol Marie Clark, who testified Wednesday that she joined the Peace Corps in 1984 at age 22 in Nepal and was raped and impregnated by the program's director there.
"If anything happens to them, I want those women to be treated with compassion and respect," said Clark, now a teacher in rural North Carolina. "They should be heard, supported and healed, not blamed, reprimanded or ignored."
The women's emotional accounts prompted Peace Corps director Aaron Williams, appearing at the same hearing, to apologize for neglecting what he called his agency's top priority: the health and safety of its volunteers. He said the agency has taken steps like writing guidelines about how to respond to sex crimes, hiring a victims' advocate and consulting with outside groups about additional steps they can take.
Catherine Lois Puzey told the lawmakers that her daughter, Catherine "Kate" Puzey of Cumming, Ga., was killed in March 2009 after she complained by email to Peace Corps managers about a local man who worked with the volunteers - who has since been held as a suspect. She said her daughter was given no training in how to handle such problems and that the confidentiality of the e-mail was breached, endangering her.
In 2004, Jessica Smochek, then 24, became a volunteer in Bangladesh. She was often groped and harassed, but the Corps refused to send pepper spray or move her. Finally, she said, a group of men raped her.
Lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee spoke of pursuing legislation that might provoke steps like improving training.
"Your testimony will change the way business is being done in the Peace Corps," said Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from South Florida.
According to Peace Corps figures, volunteers reported more than 1,000 sexual assaults from 2000 to 2009, including 221 rapes or attempted rapes.
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Study puts Congo rapes at 48/hour
The African nation of Congo has been called the worst place on earth to be a woman. A study released Wednesday shows that it's even worse than previously thought: 1,152 women are raped every day, a rate equal to 48 per hour. That rate is 26 times more than the previous estimate of 16,000 reported in one year by the United Nations. The analysis, which will be published in the American Journal of Public Health in June, shows more than 400,000 women had been raped during a 12-month period between 2006 and 2007. On average, 29 women out of every 1,000 had been raped nationwide. That means that even in the parts of Congo that are not affected by the war, a woman is 58 times more likely to be raped than a woman in the United States (0.5 per 1,000).