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Survivors re-traumatized by Peace Corps after reporting rapes

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A group of former volunteers who were raped while working with the Peace Corps told Congress Wednesday that serious changes need to be made to the organization.

The victims explained that in many cases, the way they were treated by the Peace Corps after reporting the assault was more traumatic than the rape itself.

“These women are alone in many cases, and they’re in rough parts of the world,” Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) told The New York Times prior to the hearing.

Jessica Smochek told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that she was raped in 2004, at the age of 23, after being deployed to Bangladesh.

“The Peace Corps said that we might experience harassment during our posting, but that it just took some getting used to,” she explained.

Smochek reported the harassment she received after arriving in Bangladesh to Peace Corps staff but was told “those types of things happen.”

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“A male volunteer offered to teach us self defense but the Peace Corps rejected this offer. We asked for pepper spray or Mace but the requests were denied. We begged to be moved to a safer site. Again, the Peace Corps refused,” she said.

“Soon, the very active reporting incidents to the Peace Corps grew dangerous. Locals who learned of the reports became furious. They told me and my site mates that they would hurt me if I didn’t keep quiet. We reported these threats too, but with each report the men grew angrier and the Peace Corps did nothing.”

Then, on Dec. 6, 2004, the men dragged Smochek into an abandoned courtyard and raped and violated her. “They raped me with their bodies. They raped me with foreign objects,” she told ABC News in January.

“I went to the capital to report the rape but the Peace Corps medical officer did not examine me or perform a rape kit or collect any evidence. Instead, she took away my cellphone. This unfortunately prevented me from warning other volunteers and my site mates about what had happened. In fact, she told me that if a did talk to other volunteers that I should just tell them that I was going to Washington to have my wisdom teeth taken out,” she told the House members Wednesday.

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“Before leaving Bangladesh, I was forced to go back alone to my village — where my rapists remained — to gather my belongings and spend the night there one last time. Then, still reeling from the trauma, I was put on a plane alone back to Washington, D.C. The Peace Corps didn’t send me home or give me the option so I stayed in Washington for the next 45 days. When I arrived in D.C. late at night, no one was there to greet me at the airport. I was forced to find my way through this large unfamiliar city on my own.”

“The Peace Corps first sent me to a male gynecologist. He was insensitive and it was excruciating. The Peace Corps also required me to meet with a counselor who required me to write down everything I had done wrong for this to occurr. As examples, she suggested that I had been out after 5 p.m., I hadn’t screamed and I didn’t fight back,” Smochek said.

“Rather than feeling safe and supported I felt belittle and blamed.”

Dr. Karestan Koenen and Carol Clark testified that they had similar experiences while with the Peace Corps. Lois Puzey explained that her daughter Kate was murdered in 2009 while posted in Benin.

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“No one gave me the opportunity to make a formal statement or to speak with law enforcement” after being raped in Niger in 1991, Koenen told the committee. “I was soon put on an international flight to Washington, D.C. alone.”

“Upon arriving a Peace Corps headquarters, I was greeted with a cold reception. I was first sent to a male gynecologist. I recall finding the pelvic exam incredibly painful and him telling me to stop being hysterical and to just calm down. I was then sent to speak with a Peace Corps staff investigator who said, ‘I am so sick of you girls going over there drinking, dancing and flirting. When a guy comes on to you, you say you have been raped.'”

“My final straw was when my Peace Corps country director said to me when I wanted to prosecute, ‘It’s your word against his. He said you wanted to have sex and we believe him,'” Koenen said.

“As an expert in the field of psychological trauma, I know how dangerous an inadequate response to a rape victim can be. Fear of being disbelieved or blamed as I was by the Peace Corps is exactly why so many survivors do not support their rapes. The Peace Corps own data suggest two times more assaults occur than those that are reported.”

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According to the Peace Corps, an average of 22 women in the Peace Corps report being victims of rape or attempted rape each year. Between 2000 and 2009, over 1,000 women reported sexual assaults, including 221 rapes or attempted raptes.

The Women called on the Peace Corps to discontinued use of the current sexual assault video that shows survivors apologizing for their rapes, deploy victims advocates to every region, provide travel companions for survivors returning home to the U.S., set up a task force with the Department of Labor to help survivors get timely benefits, and fire the staff who blame victims.

Several of the survivors that testified said they did not want their testimony used to dismantle or deny funding to the Peace Corps.

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