Monday, May 9, 2011

Harvard Expert Hearing Witness Interviews with ABC about Sexual Violence in Peace Corps


May 9, 2011

Karestan Koenen, a former Peace Corps volunteer who was raped while serving in the African country of Niger in the 1990s, says the Peace Corps' treatment of her in the aftermath "was like being raped all over again."

"I trusted the Peace Corps, I believed in the Peace Corps. And then [Peace Corps officials] did everything they could to blame me, to not provide adequate care, and even to provide care that was subsequently harmful to me," she told ABC News in a recent interview.

In an ABC News investigation that aired on "20/20," former Peace Corps volunteers alleged that they had been mistreated by the Peace Corps after they were victims of sexual assault while serving overseas. On Wednesday, Congress will convene a hearing about violence against Peace Corps volunteers and what critics call the organization's inadequate response.

Koenen, now an associate professor of trauma psychology at Columbia University and an adjunct at Harvard, had kept the rape a secret for years until she watched the January "20/20" report.

Koenen says she is speaking out to show that this is not a recent problem that is isolated to just a few women. "What's so horrifying to me now is that that nothing has changed," she said. "This has been going on for decades at least. People need to know that this is a chronic problem that the Peace Corps has been unable and unwilling to change," she said.

Koenen grew up in rural New Jersey, and had never heard of Niger until she learned she was accepted into the Peace Corps and assigned to a post there. At the time, Koenen was a 22-year-old graduate of Wellesley College with dreams of pursuing a career as a development economist focused on sub-Saharan Africa. As soon as she received news of her assignment she quit her job at the Federal Reserve Bank and, in June 1991, headed for Niger, then the poorest country in the world.

Koenen and the other volunteers ran into danger almost as soon as they arrived. During the 11-week in-country training session, her bunkmate was raped and two male volunteers were assaulted by a group of local men. Koenen was robbed during the incident, but continued with the program.

Once at her post in southern Niger, she was constantly harassed by local men, but she said she did not fear for her physical safety.

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  1. As a concerned citizen I thank First Response in their efforts to bring the inadequacies of Peace Corp's sexual assault reporting and response.

    My girlfriend and I have often thought of joining the Peace Corp together, but have heard rumors that Peace Corp prefers single service members.

    Considering the number of cases of sexual assault, you'd think couples would be prefered in the Peace Corp. More security means more effective work done, right? Instead we send women by themselves into cultures where not only are they at risk, but they are the prime target.

  2. I was a 55 yr old male PCV in 2004-06. After completing my primary work, I spent the last six months of service working with an iNGO infrastructure engineering group evaluating road and irrigation system construction. They wanted me to ride with them by motorcycle to assess projects in remote locations. I had been riding motorcycles for nearly 40 years at that point, and the activities would always have been controlled and traveling with a team. The Peace Corps told this iNGO not to allow me on a motorcycle, ever, period. I would have been sent home immediately.

    Another older PCV who site was close by smoked pot at home nearly day. If she had caught she would have been sent home immediately.

    However, PCVs who got together in the capital city, or elsewhere, and wanted to party in rough neighborhoods had no such restriction placed on them. After about six months of service most PCVs think they can "talk the talk, and walk the walk..." Getting drunk and bar hopping in a foreign capital was considered a part of the "Peace Corps Experience". Risky sexual behavior or promiscuity was also considered part of the "Peace Corps Experience."

    "We're adults and you can't tell us what to do" was a PCV mantra.

    If I would have been sent home for riding a motorcycle in a working situation, or another PCV sent home for smoking pot in her house, why was no one sent home for drinking and carousing in the wrong places and at the wrong times?

    I've read and agree completely with your 7-Point Plan. I do think there should be an 8th point. "If you put yourself in dangerous situations that expose you to assault, then you will be sent home before an assault occurs. The Peace Corps needs to monitor the activities of all PCVs in country and be ready to remove anyone who involves themselves in high risk behavior, before an assault occurs".

    Responsibility for your own behavior should always be your first concern.

  3. Mohammad S Islam11 May, 2011 09:14

    As a Bangladeshi citizen (now living in NY) I feel so ashamed to hear the brutal assault on Jess Smochek, a Peace Corp volunteer, by a gang of beast-like men in my own country. As a journalist back in my country, I always tried to focus against all evils of the society and for writing so I was on many occasions threatened by goons. I write this comment just to express my sincere sympathy to Smochek and also to say a big SORRY to her because a few bad men of my country attacked her. And I also express my desire to work with First Response Action and help contribute this group whatever is possible for me to do for their noble cause and efforts .

    Mohammad S Islam
    428 Euclid Ave
    Brooklyn, NY 11208