WASHINGTON — Congress has responded to complaints that the U.S. Peace Corps has not done enough to protect its volunteers from sexual assaults, with legislation requiring the agency to train participants better in how to avoid attacks.
The House of Representatives voted 406-0 Tuesday to pass the bill and send it to President Barack Obama for his signature. The Senate passed it by voice vote in September.
The measure provides whistle-blower protections for volunteers who report threatening activities and requires the Peace Corps to develop sexual assault risk-reduction and response training. The agency also must establish a victim’s support office.
“The Peace Corps has fallen disturbingly short in providing adequate protection for its volunteers and lacks a proper system for responding to crimes, including murder and sexual assault,” said Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. She said the bill she co-sponsored would make volunteer safety “the Peace Corps’ overarching priority.”
The Peace Corps, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has been hit by criticisms that it is doing too little to protect the security of volunteers it sends abroad.
In May, Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams appeared before a Foreign Affairs Committee hearing to apologize for the agency’s shortcomings on volunteer safety issues.
“The Peace Corps has not always been sufficiently responsive, compassionate or sensitive to victims of crime and their families,” he said at the time. “It is heartbreaking to learn, and I apologize for any additional pain the agency has inflicted on our volunteers.”
Williams spoke after the testimony of three volunteers who had been raped while serving overseas and the mother of a fourth volunteer who was murdered in Benin. They charged that the agency did little to train volunteers how to avoid sexual attacks and was unhelpful in the aftermath of the crimes.
The bill was named after the murdered volunteer, Kate Puzey, 24, from Georgia. She was killed in 2009 after reporting a local colleague for allegedly molesting some of the young girls they taught. Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson introduced the Senate bill along with Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat.
Williams said after the vote that it was a fitting tribute to Puzey, and the bill “codifies many of the reforms that the agency has put in place over the past two years to ensure that Peace Corps volunteers serving worldwide receive the support and protection they deserve.”
The Peace Corps has sent more than 200,000 Americans to serve in 139 countries since its founding in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. Currently, more than 9,000 volunteers are serving in 76 nations.