Yesterday the U.S. Congress signed a bill into law to protect PCVs, women Volunteers especially. The bill protects whistleblowers, train volunteers on how to avoid attacks, and improve the treatment of sexual assault victims. It passed the House by unanimous consent. It is called The Kate Puzey Volunteer Protection Act of 2011–named after Kate Puzey who was murdered in Benin in 2009. It had already passed the Senate by unanimous consent in September.
“We’re so gratified, and actually amazed, that it’s come to fruition, and that other volunteers will be able to hopefully serve safely,” Puzey’s mother told ABC News. “And if, God forbid, something happens, then they will have the support they need, which is what our family did not get.” The legislation was created after dozens of women who served in the Peace Corps accused the agency of not doing enough to help them after they were sexually assaulted. You might have seen it all played out on ABC 20/20 earlier this year.
The group of RPCV women who pushed for such a bill should get credit for their efforts, but also, in all fairness, the current administration is not to be blamed for what happened in years past under other Peace Corps administrations.
Every generation of PCVs has its problems. Gays and Lesbians were routinely kicked out of the agency in the Sixties. Volunteers caught smoking grass were sent home by overseas Staff without a second thought, (and they might still be!). But women PCVs are still, and always, will be at risk.
In the early years of the agency, in Ethiopia, for example, women were kept out of rural assignments unless they were married. But it was women Volunteers in Ethiopia, however, who demanded that they, too, be assigned to small towns and rural villages. And they have served well and safely for nearly fifty years.
We had back in the ’60s and ‘70 roughly 30 percent women in the Peace Corps. The number of women serving in the agency today is closer to 65 percent. Keeping all of these women safe is no easy task.
The Puzey Act, while welcomed and needed, will not protect women. Keeping safe is up to the individual PCV and their overseas Staff, not HQ/DC or Congress! Congress and HQ can write rules and regulations but it is the CD in-country who sets the tone. Trainees arriving in-country have no idea what to expect or how to behave; it is up to the Staff to make them well aware that they are not in Kansas any longer.
What the Puzey Act will do, what it can only do, is make sure, in a legal way, that the Staff, from those in-country to those back home, respond in a humane and rational way to their needs.
One would think the Peace Corps doesn’t need a special Act to make sure the Staff is doing right by Volunteers, but as many of us have wondered over the years: ‘How did that person ever get hired by the Peace Corps?