The Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011 seeks to amend the Peace Corps Act to enhance the safety of serving Volunteers. The legislation has been introduced in both Houses of Congress with bipartisan support. It has already been voted out of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and is pending action in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. The goal is to legislate administrative systems designed, first, to prevent sexual assault of Peace Corps Volunteers, and then, to provide for adequate treatment if such crimes occur and finally, to make Peace Corps officials accountable for the implementation of these provisions. The law draws  from the Congressional testimony of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who were assault victims as well as from experts in the field. The First Response Action Group, of RPCVs, is responsible for leading this effort.

The legal status of Volunteers and the Five Year Rule for employees makes the administrative structure of Peace Corps unique. Peace Corps Volunteers are not civil service employees. Therefore, they are not eligible for services of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission nor can Volunteers be members of public employee unions. Volunteers serve overseas and cannot access the support services available in the United States to crime victims.

Administrative continuity is severely impacted by the high rate of staff turnover due to the Five Year Rule limiting staff tenure, and the extraordinary number of political appointees in decision-making positions. The consequence is that political positions may be vacant for long periods of time during the transition from one political administration to another. New staff may be unfamiliar with conditions in the overseas post to which they have been assigned. There may be confusion over policy. All of this can contribute to an environment that is not conducive to Volunteer productivity, let alone safety. Chronic staff turnover makes it almost impossible for Congress to exercise appropriate oversight of Peace Corps management. The legislation would seek to address these problems. Let us examine how.

PREVENTION

The law would mandate training, information, and the right to transfer as the prime ways to lessen the risk of assault.  Applicants are to receive an historical analysis of crimes and risks against the volunteers in the country to which the applicant has been invited to serve. (This would also have the welcome effect of educating new staff members to that history; emphasis mine). Volunteers in training (Trainees are considered Volunteers) would receive best practices  “comprehensive sexual assault and risk-reduction and response training.” In country, Volunteers would receive additional training specific to the culture of that country. The training would include the provision of information on whom to contact and services to be provided in the unfortunate event of an assault.  Most importantly, “If a volunteer feels at risk of imminent bodily harm and request removal from the site in which such volunteer is serving, the Director of the Peace Corps shall, as expeditiously as practical after receiving such request, remove such volunteer from such site.” H.R. 2337: Sec. 8B (e) (1). All of these actions would become a matter of law and not subject to administrative discretion or inaction.

TREATMENT

If a Volunteer were to be assaulted, the law would make specific stipulations about the protocol to be followed by Peace Corps staff. Guidelines would include protection of a Volunteers’ confidentiality, provision of a victim’s advocate, appropriate emergency health care, including counseling and psychiatric medication, and evacuation accompanied by a Peace Corps staffer at the request of the Volunteer. The law would also establish victim advocates who would be exempt from the Five Year Rule.

In the article, “A Way Forward.” (NPCA’s Worldview - Summer 2011 Volume 24, Number 2), RPCV and rape survivor Karestan Chase Koenen, PhD (Niger 91-92) describes the importance of adequate Peace Corps response. Such response is critical in preventing the development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Koenen is a licensed clinical psychologist and epidemiologist at Columbia University and Harvard University. She argues convincingly that Peace Corps has the opportunity to become an international leader in the field by using these “best practices.”

ACCOUNTABILITY

The law would create a Sexual Assault Advisory Council and provide for Volunteer Feedback and Peace Corps Review. The law would provide for extensive and comprehensive reporting to Congress.  An interesting requirement is ”A report, not later than two years, after the date of the enactment of this section, describing how Country Directors are hired, how Country Directors are terminated, and how Country Directors hire staff” H.R. 2337: Sec. 8E (c) (4). Such reports should allow Congress to monitor in a timely manner.

REFERENCES

To read the text of H.R. 2337 and S.1280, go to http://thomas.loc.gov/home/thomas.php

Key in the bill’s number in the appropriate search box.

First Response Action website: http://firstresponseaction.org/