By ANGELA M. HILL and RANDY KREIDER–ABC NEWS
Nov. 21, 2011 –
President Obama signed the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act today, less than a year after an ABC News investigation into the murder of the 24-year-old volunteer in Africa.
The act, which passed earlier this month in Congress, is designed to protect Peace Corps whistleblowers and improve the treatment of victims of violence and sexual assault.
The law is named for 24-year-old Kate Puzey of Georgia, who was murdered in Benin in 2009 after telling superiors she believed a fellow Peace Corps employee was molesting female students. In an investigation that aired on “20/20,” ABC News told the story of Kate’s murder and examined what critics say has been a “blame-the-victim” culture within the Peace Corps when volunteers are assaulted or attempt to report problems.
“It’s such a wonderful thing. We’re really, really happy this is happening,” Kate’s mother, Lois Puzey told ABC News of the signing today. “It really has restored my faith in humankind and the fact that government can work.”
Karestan Koenen, a former Peace Corps volunteer who was raped while serving in Niger in 1991, said she has been overwhelmed by the bill’s success in government.
“We’re fighters. We fought all along the way and were inspirations to each other,” Koenen said of all the former volunteers who came forward. “I hope it will mean a change in the culture from one of victim blaming to one that embraces victims, supports them and treats them with respect and compassion.”
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R.-Georgia, and Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, introduced the bill with a Capitol Hill press conference this summer.
“The time has come to stand up and protect America’s angels abroad”, said Poe at the press conference then.
“This bipartisan legislation will implement structural changes to make the Peace Corps an even better institution as it enters its next fifty years,” he said today.
Calling today a “historic day” for Peace Corps volunteers, Isakson said, “May this new law honor the life of the remarkable young woman, Kate Puzey, as it ensures that the courageous young men and women who serve in the Peace Corps have the protections they rightly deserve.”
The bill requires the Peace Corps to improve the training of volunteers to reduce sexual assault risk, would protect whistleblowers, and would require the Peace Corps to hire victims’ advocates for each region the agency serves.
Kate Puzey was serving in a village in the West African nation of Benin in March 2009 when she began to suspect that a Peace Corps employee named Constant Bio, a citizen of Benin, was sexually harassing and sleeping with female students at the school where she taught. She sent an email to country headquarters reporting her suspicions and recommending he be fired.
“Please believe me, I’m not someone who likes to create problems, but this has been weighing heavily on me,” reads the e-mail she sent, obtained by ABC News.
Bio’s brother worked as a manager in the Peace Corps office and Puzey asked her role be kept secret. She was found with her throat slit shortly after Bio received word from Peace Corps officials that he would be dismissed from his contractor position. The suspect has been in custody since the murder while authorities in Benin investigate. Bio asserted his innocence in a letter to a newspaper in Benin, claiming he was being framed by America. Benin authorities have said they do not yet have enough evidence to try Bio.
The Puzey family believes that the Peace Corps failed to protect Kate, and then kept them in the dark about what had happened.
“It hurts us very deeply,” said Kate’s father, Harry Puzey, in an interview for “20/20.”
“We wouldn’t be sitting here, I think, if they had been more transparent with us, more honest with us,” added Lois Puzey.
Carrie Hessler-Radelet, the Peace Corps deputy director, refused to say at the time of the “20/20” investigation whether the agency bore any responsibility for Kate Puzey’s death, citing the ongoing criminal investigation in Benin. “I cannot say because the investigation is not complete,” she told ABC News.
Critics of the Peace Corps say the agency has a culture that tries to downplay violent incidents overseas and make victims feel responsible for their own misfortunes. Women who were sexually assaulted while serving as Peace Corps volunteers told ABC News that the treatment they received after they were attacked was sometimes worse than the assaults themselves, and that the agency seemed ill-equipped to deal with victims.
Casey Frazee, who was assaulted while serving in South Africa, formed a group called First Response Action to pressure the Peace Corps into reforming its treatment of victims and updating its sexual assault prevention program.
Frazee said the new law represented a “huge step in the right direction” for the Peace Corps.
“Once it’s implemented, certainly we’ll need to see how things are going,” Frazee said. “Nothing like this exists, nothing that codifies anything like this in the Peace Corps… I’m just incredibly thankful and grateful that I had a hand in this. It was an effort by many, many people and many other victims who weren’t able to speak up, and some who were.”