While the 2009 murder of a Peace Corps volunteer in the West African country of Benin remains unaccounted for, activists and former volunteers are seeking reforms to the U.S. overseas service program.
A hearing last week in the U.S. Congress failed to bring answers from Peace Corps officials about the murder of Benin Peace Corps volunteer Kate Puzey. Prior to her death, Puzey had sent an email to other Peace Corps officials accusing a Benin national employee of sexually abusing children at a school in the northern village of Badjoude, where she also taught.
Former Peace Corps volunteer and executive editor of a widely read blog called Gender Across Borders, Emily Heroy, was one of many activists who was disappointed after closely following the proceedings.
"What happened, that was atrocious," Heroy said. "That family deserves to hear what happened to their family member."
She says there needs to be not just accountability from Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, but also a complete change of how Peace Corps offices and employees worldwide deal with cases of sexual assault.
"Some of the country directors I know were not former Peace Corps volunteers, which I think makes a big difference," noted Heroy. "Maybe they do not understand the volunteer's point of view in that respect, but also the doctors also working with Peace Corps volunteers and the program directors as well, many of them are country nationals, so they may not understand where we are coming from as U.S. citizens and how we deal with sexual assault. It may be different in their country."
During the hearing, Kate's mother, Lois Puzey, said that Kate's email about the sexual abuse was passed on to the accused, Constant Bio, despite Kate's insistence that her identity be protected.
"Kate particularly emphasized the need for confidentiality because she understood that the brother of Mr. Bio worked in that same country office as the Peace Corps director," explained Puzey. "Tragically the way that Kate's email was handled ultimately led to her death."
Bio has been in custody since the March 2009 murder, while authorities in Benin continue to investigate. In a letter to a Benin newspaper, Bio asserted his innocence, claiming he was being framed by Americans.
Activists have called for new legislation, ranging from whistle-blower protection for those who accuse other Peace Corps employees of crimes to better care of volunteers who become victims of sexual abuse themselves.
Last week's hearing focused on testimony by former volunteers who had been sexually assaulted during their service, some of them by Peace Corps officials. They all testified that they had been mistreated by the Peace Corps after the attacks, being told to hide what happened or finding themselves ignored.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla. (file photo)
Florida Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said the Peace Corps needed a "culture change".
"Peace Corps safety and security failures have been a recurrent problem with tragic consequences for thousands of volunteers," Ros-Lehtinen said. "Some who seek to ignore those problems have asserted that volunteer service itself is inherently risky as an excuse for lax and ineffective safety and security measures. That attitude is unacceptable."
Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams apologized to victims.
Peace Corps Director, Aaron Williams
"The brave women who have come forward have shown us that the Peace Corps has not always been sufficiently responsive, compassionate or sensitive to victims of crime and their families," Williams said. "It is heartbreaking to learn that. And I apologize for any additional pain the agency has inflicted on our volunteers."
Williams said changes are being made and implemented. But during his testimony, he did not acknowledge any role the Peace Corps may have played in the death of Kate Puzey.
The volunteer organization, which this year marked 50 years of existence, has more than 8,000 volunteers serving in more than 70 countries, many of them in remote locations working for better health and education.